Whenever you go into a supermarket, it can feel like a bit of a mission to navigate the shop’s layout, confusing pricing and offers, all while trying to find a meal that is not only nutritious but won’t leave a hole in your wallet.

Thankfully, when it comes to looking out for the most nutritious foods in supermarkets, there is help at hand in the form of food labelling standards in the UK.

Although the standards don’t cover every type of food sold in the UK (for example, foods that are sold loose are subject to different labelling standards) knowing how to understand food labels, particularly in supermarkets, can prove really useful if you’re looking to purchase better quality food.

A selection of healthy fruit and vegetables and dairy. Good food labelling can help you buy foods that lead to a balanced diet.
Learning how to read food labels can lead to better food choices. (Image Source: CC0 1.0, FotoshopTofs, Pixabay)

Food Labelling In The UK – The Basics

In the UK, it is a requirement for pre-packaged foods to show certain types of information on the package’s labelling, in order to give customers a better understanding of items such as:

  • The ingredients within the product;
  • An indication of the product’s overall nutritional quality; and
  • Whether there are any allergens present in the food.

Food that has been packaged contains a lot of information, which can be really helpful to shoppers who want to make more informed choices about the products they buy.

Core Labelling Requirements

Overall, there are a few core pieces of information that you’ll find on pre-packaged foods, including the name of the food, its best-before or use-by date, a list of ingredients, special storage instructions (if needed), instructions on how to cook the food (if instructions are necessary), as well as the country of origin for certain products. This list is not exhaustive, as there are other labelling requirements in addition to the above.

The country of origin of a food product should be shown for certain meats, such as beef, lamb, pork, and poultry, and the country of origin should also be displayed on packaging for fish and shellfish, wine, olive oil, as well as honey and any fruit or veg that has its origin outside of the European Union.

List Of Ingredients

One of the most useful aspects of food labelling regulations in the UK is that, where a product has two or more ingredients, a list of all of the ingredients used in that product must be displayed on the packaging.

Importantly, the ingredients in a product are listed according to their weight, so that the ingredient with the most weight is listed first, and the ingredient with the least weight is listed last. This means that, when you’re trying to figure out how healthy a particular product may be, a good indicator could well be the ingredients list.

For instance, if you pick up a pack of biscuits, you’ll likely notice that sugar is one of the first listed items in the ingredients list – clearly not so healthy.

Even looking at the labels of meat-based products can provide a good insight into just how processed those products are. For example if, say, a meat pie only actually lists a low percentage of meat in the ingredients, and other items, such as water or flour, are listed before the weight of the meat, it may indicate that the food has been highly processed.

If you’re looking to buy the healthiest products possible, even pre-packaged products, then it can pay to have a quick look at each product’s label and compare them to see which has less processed ingredients or less sugar than the other.

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A collection of high fat foods. Looking at food labels can help avoid eating as many high fat foods.
Reduction of high-fat foods is a key part of a balanced diet. Looking at food nutrition labels can also help manage a healthy diet. (Image Source: Public Domain, author unknown, Wikimedia Commons)


Aside from showing nutrition information, another crucial aspect to food labelling is that any allergens that are present have to be clearly highlighted and made visible to the customer, and they should also form part of the product’s list of ingredients.

There are a number of different allergens that have to be highlighted in this way, with a selection of those being:

  • Eggs;
  • Milk;
  • Peanuts or nuts more generally;
  • Gluten-containing cereals, such as wheat and oats; and
  • Crustaceans.

As such, if you do suffer from a food insensitivity, for example, if you’re gluten intolerant, having such clear allergen labelling can be immensely helpful when shopping, as you should have a good idea whether a food may pose a threat to you or someone you’ll serve the food to.

Of course, there are certain products, such as gluten-free, wheat-free, or egg-free certified goods, which can provide complete peace of mind if you know that you have to avoid certain allergens in foods.

Although such products are typically more expensive, many supermarkets have their own dedicated aisles or sections for such dietary-specific goods, so it is certainly one way to make your shopping trip less stressful if you do have to be careful of consuming certain ingredients.

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What Is The Traffic Light System For Food?

Another aspect of food labelling that you may see on products is the traffic light labelling system.

Products that use this system will show information on the front of the packaging to indicate how much of the following is present in their product:

Under the traffic light system, each of the above features is colour coded based on how much salt, sugar, etc. is present per 100g of product. Red colour coding means that there are high levels of that item in the product, amber colour coding means there is a medium amount present, while green means that there is a low amount in the product.

The idea behind traffic light labelling is that it should be easier for consumers to determine how healthy a product may be by displaying such a nutrition label. This, in turn, should help them make better informed dietary choices.

For instance, a product that is green for all indicators – calories, fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugars, would indicate a much healthier choice than a product that was labelled completely in red. Ideally, amounts with a lot of red on their label should be eaten in moderation, or in small amounts. Healthier food choices should help reduce health risks such as obesity, as can measures such as eating the correct serving size.

It is worth noting that the traffic light labelling system is not mandatory so not all products will feature it, and there are suggestions that the labelling system is far from perfect at present. Nevertheless, it is a tool that can be used to try and make more informed food choices, when it is available.

Ultimately, the best way to make the best food choices is to try and ensure that you consume a balanced diet, by eating a combination of carbohydrates, dairy,  vitamins, healthy fats, cereals, and enough calories to suit your energy needs. Equally, unhealthy snacks and foods should only be eaten in moderation, if at all.

A block of butter. Looking at food nutrition labels can help you to make the best diet choices.
Minimising foods like butter can lead to a healthier diet. Checking food labels can also help improve the food choices you make. (Image Source: CC0 1.0, congerdesign, Pixabay)

Want To Learn More About Food Labelling?

Food labelling in the UK is a wonderful tool for shoppers, as it can help them have a better understanding of what exactly they are putting into their mouths.

What's more, effective food labelling can help shoppers to try to make the most informed choices when it comes to the nutritional quality of the products they buy, by letting them know about the kind of nutrients within a product, as well as how much a portion of that product will contribute towards a person's daily caloric intake.

While the above provides a brief overview of food labelling in the UK, there is, of course, a lot more to learn if you’re interested in finding out more about food regulations in the UK.

This is because different regulations apply according to the type of food sold, and how it is sold - for instance, organic foods have to follow a slightly different process compared to non-organic foods when it comes to food labelling.

If you would like to learn more about food labelling standards or are interested in learning more about nutrition in general and how you can feed yourself as well as possible for the best price, then you could reach out to a food nutrition tutor at Superprof.

A nutrition tutor can go through the basics of nutrition with you, whether that involves teaching you about the differences between carbs and fats, or whether that extends to discussing more complex nutritional issues.

Superprof has a wide range of tutors available who are happy to provide one on one or remote lessons to help you fill in the blanks when it comes to nutrition and eating well. Just enter your postcode to find a suitable nutritionist near me.

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