Understanding Food Labels

This week we will be discussing food labels, what they mean, and what to look out for when shopping for food. When supporting clients like you with making changes to your diet, it is important to understand what to look for on food labels to help you make healthier food choices.

What are Food Labels?

Food labels are the nutritional information usually on the side or back of food packaging. Most pre-packed foods have this information on them. They can be useful in helping you to eat a balanced diet and to be aware of what nutrients are in your food. To learn more about eating a healthy, balanced diet, read this article.

Food labels must contain information of the amount of energy in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal), also known as calories. Additionally, they must include information on fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein, and salt. Some labels also contain information on other nutrients such as fibre.

What to Look for on Labels

In general, it is better to pick foods that are lower in fat, salt, and sugar. Foods high in these nutrients should be eaten less often and in smaller amounts. 

The guidelines to tell you if a food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar are as follows:

  • Total fat –
    • High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
    • Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g
  • Saturated fat –
    • High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
    • Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
  • Sugars –
    • High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
    • Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
  • Salt –
    • High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
    • Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

Claims on food labels

Sometimes you will also see nutrition and health claims on foods such as ‘low fat’, high in protein’, or ‘Vitamin D contributes to the normal function of the immune system’. These types of claims known as nutrition and health claims only be used in the food meets the criteria set out in the regulations. These claims can be useful to help you make healthier food choices. However, in some instances, it is useful to look at the additional information on the food label to guide your choice. For example, a yoghurt labelled as low fat may have added sugar making it a less healthy choice. In this instance, you may wish to look for a yoghurt that also says ‘no added sugar’ or has less then 5g of total sugars per 100g.

Front of Packaging Labelling

You may also recognise the labelling used on the front of a pack, usually using traffic light colour coding. The front of the pack must include energy (calories), fat content, saturated fat content, sugars content, and salt content. This information can be useful to quickly determine the nutritional information of foods at a glance, and when comparing food products.

The colour coding used on products is as follows:

  • Red means high
  • Amber means medium
  • Green means low

Foods with mostly green on the label is usually a healthier choice. Products with some or mostly amber are foods that you can eat most of the time. Foods with red on the label should be limited, as these are products that are high in fat, saturated fat, salt, or sugars.

Other Nutritional Information

Nutritional labels may also provide information about reference intakes. This is information on how a product fits into your daily recommended diet, based on guidelines about the approximate amount of nutrients and energy required for a healthy diet. 

An ingredients list will also be seen on any pre-packed foods, with allergens highlighted on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, so if the first few ingredients are high in fat, then the food is likely to be a high-fat food [1].

Top Tips for Shopping with Food Labels

  1. Opt for foods with mostly green colour coding.
  2. Use the front label colour coding to quickly compare products.
  3. Try to limit the amount of foods with red colour coding.
  4. Use the ingredients list to see if a food contains a large amount of high fat ingredients.
  5. Look at the reference intake information to see how a product fits into your daily recommended diet.


Understanding food labels is an important part of being able to make healthy food choices to support you with your nutritional goals.

When working 1-2-1 with clients, helping you to understand food labels along with education on food and nutrition and how it can be used to make dietary changes is one of the practical ways we can work together. If you would like to learn more about how I can support you with making dietary changes, please book a free 15-minute discovery call.

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Caroline Hill is a specialist menopause dietitian supporting women making dietary change. Caroline uses her extensive knowledge, skills and expertise of food and nutrition to help women manage their symptoms and weight during menopause. Caroline believes in providing sustainable, individualised, evidence-based advice to women making dietary change.

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