Food labels: what they mean

Food labels: What they mean

We're always encouraged to read food labels carefully to make sure we know what we're buying or consuming, but it's not always easy to understand exactly what all the information on those labels actually means…

What the labels say and what they mean

Many foods have Reference Intake or RI tables (formerly known as GDA or NRV) on the front of their packaging to make it easier for you to find the information you need to know about your foods.

The RI information is in a prominent position on the top of food packaging and includes the percentage value of each product in relation to an adult's daily guideline amounts of calories, sugar, fat, sugar, saturates and salt.

To help next time you're studying the labels, we've included a brief guide to some of the terms and symbols you might find on food packaging.

Allergies and "may contain..." labels

If a pre-packed item contains any of the 14 allergy-causing foods (including nuts, dairy items and even celery), food items from all EU countries must draw attention to this on the label.

You may also see labels saying 'may contain nuts' or 'may contain seeds'. This means that although nuts or seeds aren't intentionally included in the food, there's a chance that small amounts may appear during processing and therefore should be avoided if you have a nut or seed allergy.

Gluten free

Wheat and some other cereals contain a protein called gluten, which some people have an intolerance to (this is also known as coeliac disease). Legally, manufacturers don't have to state on the label how much gluten is in the food, but there are controls on the type of phrases used to show whether they are suitable for people with gluten intolerance.

Foods made from substitute ingredients such as rice or maize which naturally don't contain gluten, or free from wheat that has nearly all the gluten removed, will be labelled as "gluten free" or "very low gluten", depending on the gluten level in the food.

"Light" (or "lite")

If a product is described as "light" or "lite", it must be at least 30% lower than standard products in a minimum of one typical value (e.g. 30 per cent less calories or 30 per cent less fat).

Sometimes the "light" or "lite" version of one brand may contain the same amount of fat or calories as the standard version of another brand. Make sure you're in the know simply by checking the values tables on the packaging. For example, Benecol® Light Yogurt Drink has 30 per cent less calories than Benecol® Original Yogurt Drink.

No added sugar or unsweetened

"No added sugar" means that a food hasn't had sugar added to it as an ingredient. "Unsweetened" usually means that no sugar or sweetener has been added to make a food taste sweet.

It's worth knowing that some foods such as milk and fruit may not have added sugar or sweeteners, but they still taste sweet because of the naturally occurring sugars. These natural sugars are healthy – it's foods containing added refined sugars that the Food Standards Agency recommend we reduce.

Polyunsaturates and monounsaturates?

It's widely agreed that using polyunsaturates or monounsaturates instead of saturated fat is good for us, not least because they've been proven to help lower cholesterol levels and help reduce the risk of heart disease. Monounsaturates can be found in olive oil, flaxseed oil and rapeseed oil. Polyunsaturates occur in sunflower oil, corn oil and soya oil.

Oils that are labelled as vegetable oil or blended vegetable oils are also fairly low in saturated fat. Don't forget that even if the oil isn't saturated it's still important to keep an eye on how much fat you eat.

Lactose free

Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk that some people can't digest. There are varying degrees of lactose intolerance and some people will be more affected than others.

Reduced-lactose and lactose-free dairy products are stocked in many supermarkets and health food shops. The majority of soya, rice and oat drinks are labelled 'lactose free' because these don't contain any lactose naturally.