What do Food Labels Mean?Food labels can be an absolute minefield – low this high that, sugar free, low fat, suitable for vegetarians…the list is endless, and, in some cases plain confusing.

Educating children about food labelling can be particularly tricky as there are so many nutritional ‘claims’ laid to products, which, when scrutinised, don’t always add up!

Traffic Light Labelling

Some shops have now adopted a ‘traffic light’ approach to food labelling; quite simply a ‘green for low, red for high, amber for medium’ label which should help and encourage consumers to go for healthy options. This kind of labelling should make it easy to spot whether a product has a high fat, sugar or salt content and make it easier for children in particular to choose nutritionally balanced meals and snacks.

What About All the Other Labels?

Unfortunately, not all labelling is quite as straightforward as the traffic light system, and can not only be confusing but also misleading, for example, a product could be labelled low fat yet be exceptionally high in sugar – it can be interesting to compare the sugar content of low fat and regular biscuits and cakes – to maintain the taste after the fat has been reduced, manufacturers often throw in extra sugar!


Food stuff may only be labelled ‘organic’ if it is produced in accordance with stringent laws and regulations; the growers, processors and importers must be approved by a regulatory body which is registered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Also, organic ingredients must make up 95% of the product.

No Added Sugar

No added sugar means simply that – no additional sugar has been added to the product. But beware: The product could be high in natural sugars, such as fruit sugars or lactose (sugars from milk) or could be loaded with artificial sweeteners!

Low Salt

  • High is more than 1.5g salt per
  • Low is 0.3g salt or less per 100g

Low Fat

As there is no law on what makes a product low fat or ‘light’ or ‘low’, it is always best to compare it with a regular ‘full fat’ version – this way, you can see if, for the small reduction in fats, there has been a huge increase in sugar or salt and make your own mind up as to which one would suit you and your families diet.

Allergy Labelling

Since 1995, it has been compulsory for manufacturers to list certain products in pre-packaged food that consumers may develop an allergic reaction to. The rule applies to all European Union countries. The labelling information must also be clear as to whether other ingredients within the products could contain any of the listed foods (for example, egg glaze on a pie or cake.)

The twelve ingredients to look out for are:

  • Celery
  • Cereals which contain gluten
  • Crustaceans (for instance as lobster and crab)
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Mustard
  • Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soybeans
  • Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if levels are above 10mg per kg or per litre)

Suitable For Vegetarians

Food labelled as being suitable for vegetarians must not contains any meat or fish or meat or fish derivatives. Products which are approved by the Vegetarian Society bear their logo, but it is worth remembering that according to the food standards agency, there is no single legal definition of the terms ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ either at European or UK level.