How to Read Food Labels

Learning how to read food labels helps to keep a check on the amount of foods you're eating that are high in fat, salt and added sugars.

Do you struggle to understand:

  • Nutrition labels on the back or side of packaging
  • Nutrition labels on the front of packaging
  • Reference intake (RI)
  • Red, amber and green colour-coding
  • Ingredients list
  • Food shopping tips

Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging.

These labels usually include information on energy in kilojoules (kJ) or kilocalories (kcal), usually referred to as calories. They also include information on protein, carbohydrate and fat. They may provide additional information on saturated fat, sugars, sodium and salt. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food.

Supermarkets and food manufacturers now highlight the energy, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt content on the front of the packaging, alongside the reference intake for each of these. You can find out more in the section on reference intake (RI) below.

Nutrition labels on the back or side of packaging

Nutrition labels are often displayed as a panel or grid on the back or side of packaging. For example, the image below shows the back of pack nutrition label on a loaf of white bread.

Nutrition Label

This type of label usually includes information on energy (kJ/kcal), protein, carbohydrate and fat. It may also provide additional information on saturated fat, sugars, sodium, salt and fibre. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food.

How do I know if a food is high in fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt?

There are guidelines to tell you if a food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar, or not. These are:

  • 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)

For example, if you are trying to cut down on sugar, limit your consumption of foods that have more than 5g of total sugars per 100g.

Nutrition labels on the front of packaging

Most of the big supermarkets and many food manufacturers also display nutritional information on the front of pre-packed food. This is very useful when you want to compare different food products at a glance.

Nutrition Label Example

Front-of-pack labels, such as the label in the above image, usually give a quick guide to:

  • Energy
  • Fat content
  • Saturated fat content
  • Sugar content
  • Salt content

These labels provide information on the number of grams of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, and the amount of energy in a serving or portion of the food. Be aware, however, that the manufacturer’s idea of a portion may be different from yours.

Reference intake (RI)

Nutrition labels can also provide information on how a particular food or drink product fits into your daily diet.

Reference intakes are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients and energy required for a healthy diet.

Because individual requirements for energy and nutrients are different for all people, RIs are not intended as targets. Instead they are intended to give a useful indication of how a particular nutrient or amount of energy fits into your daily diet.

Information on the RI and the contribution a nutrient makes towards a RI (expressed as a percentage) can usually be found on the back or side of packaging. The percentage RI can also sometimes be repeated on the front of the pack.

Nutrition label Example

For example, the food label above shows that each pie will provide you with 19.2 grams of sugars, which represents 21% of your RI for sugars. In other words, this pack contains about a fifth of an adult’s RI of sugars.

Nutrition red, amber and green colour-coding

Some front-of-pack nutrition labels use red, amber and green colour-coding.

Food Label Example

Colour-coded nutritional information, as shown in the image above, tells you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.

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

If you buy a food that has all or mostly green lights, you know straight away that it’s a healthier choice. An amber light means neither high nor low, so you can eat foods with all or mostly amber lights most of the time. But a red light means the food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugars and these are the foods we should cut down on. Try to eat these foods less often and in small amounts.

Ingredients list

Most pre-packed food products also have a list of ingredients on the packaging or on an attached label. The ingredients list can also help you work out how healthy the product is. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the main ingredients in the packaged food always come first. That means that if the first few ingredients are high-fat ingredients, such as cream, butter or oil, then the food in question is a high-fat food.

Food shopping tips

You’re standing in the supermarket aisle looking at two similar products, trying to decide which to choose. You want to make the healthier choice but you’re in a hurry.

If you’re buying ready meals, check to see if there’s a nutrition label on the front of the pack, and then see how your choices stack up when it comes to the amount of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.

If the nutrition labels use colour-coding, you will often find a mixture of red, amber and green. So, when you’re choosing between similar products, try to go for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds, if you want to make a healthier choice.

Interested in learning more? Have a look at our range of health & nutrition courses