Understanding Your Rights

Understanding Food Labels

One of the areas Devon, Somerset and Torbay Trading Standards takes most seriously is food. Alongside other agencies, we help ensure that only safe food and drink enters the marketplace. One of our responsibilities is ensuring products, including foods, are correctly labelled, which helps make certain that consumers have all the info they need to know.

However it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly what different parts of a label mean. Here are some of the most common issues.

I can’t see the number of calories on the label, is this breaking the law?

No, it’s not illegal. While the vast majority of food manufacturers include calorie and other nutritional information on their products, they are under no legal obligation to do so. However, if they do choose to include this information, it must be in one of two formats. The first format gives information on energy (kJ/kcal), protein, carbohydrate and fat, while the second also has saturated fat, sugars, sodium, salt and fibre. This must include information for 100g or 100ml of the product, although the producer may choose to also include info for a different sized serving (but remember, what a manufacturer thinks is a serving size isn’t necessarily what you’d think is a serving size).

What nutritional claims are food manufacturers allowed to make?

All claims made on food packaging should be based on fact, and certain claims can only be made if a product meets particular criteria as defined by law. For example, if a product is marketed as ‘Low Fat’, it must normally have 3g of fat or less per 100g, while a ‘Low sodium’ product can only have a maximum of 0.1g of sodium per 100g. Most of the claims on packaging must be purely based on the nutritional content of the products, such as ‘High Fibre’ or ‘Sugar Free’, and these can only be made if they satisfy the conditions for being ‘High Fibre’ or ‘Sugar Free’ as dictated in the regulations.

Pay careful attention to the exact wording on a product, as a claim that something is ‘Lower in Fat’, is different from being ‘Low Fat’. Something that is ‘Lower Fat’ or ‘Reduced Calorie’ only has to be 25% lower in fat or calories (but could be lower than that) than its full fat/calorie counterpart.

Potentially Misleading Wording

Many products describe themselves as a ‘Light’ version of a product. This now has the same meaning in law as ‘Reduced’, so should be at least 25% lower in calories than the regular version. This means that while a ‘Light Mayonnaise’ should be 25% lower in calories than a normal ‘Mayonnaise’, it could still easily contain 10 times as much fat as would be allowed in a ‘Low Fat’ food. It should also be remembered that words such as ‘Bio’, ‘Natural’, ‘Original’, ‘Pure’ and ‘Traditional’ have no specific legal definition. Although the label cannot be deliberately misleading, these words can mean different things on different products and the manufacturer’s definition may not be the same as yours.

Other things to watch out for include terms like ‘Unsweetened’, which means that no extra sugars or sweeteners have been added to a product, not that there are no sugars in it. For example a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice could be classed as unsweetened, but might still be 10% sugar due to the sugars that were originally contained in the fruit. Fruit sugar, or fructose, is still sugar.

‘Free From…’ has become an increasingly popular term used on food labels, although you should beware of empty claims. These are made on the packaging even though the product would not have contained those ingredients in the first place, such as Gluten Free on a rice product or lactose free on a non dairy product.

Health Claims

If a product makes a health claim, such as saying it can lower the risk of a certain disease, this is only permitted when that product is authorised to do so. A list of general health claims have been approved though. For example, if a product is high in calcium, it may also say ‘Calcium helps maintain healthy bones’. However it cannot make specific claims about what the calcium in the product will do for individual consumers (for example, it cannot say eating that product will strengthen bones, although some packaging and adverts may try to suggest that without actually saying it).

There are also claims that cannot be made in any circumstances on food, such as a rate of weight loss it will help you attain, or having recommendations from doctors or health professionals (one of the quirks of this you may have noticed is that dentists are allowed to promote toothpastes in adverts, but wouldn’t be allowed to advertise specific brands of food, while doctors aren’t allowed to advertise either foods or indeed specific medicines). Making health claims is strictly regulated and you can find out more about the rules producers must follow in this PDF.

I’m allergic to something, what are the rules about labelling potential allergens in foods?

The Food Standards Agency has more information about how allergens such as nuts, eggs, milk and cereals containing gluten must be labelled. Head on over to the FSA website for the most up-to-date information.

How are ingredients listed on packaging?

Most pre-packed foodstuffs need to include a list of ingredients. These are listed from biggest to smallest by weight. If a compound ingredient is used, it must be followed by a list of the ingredients in that compound. For example, if a pie lists ‘Pastry’ as an ingredient, it should then list the ingredients of that pastry, from biggest to smallest, in brackets. You can find out more about the rules of ‘Quantitative Ingredients’ here.

I Want More Information

The NHS has lots more info on understanding food labels and how to interpret them. They cover things such as exactly what is considered to be high or low in fat, as well as the ‘traffic light’ nutritional information found on the front of many products. You can find that info here.