We all want to know what goes into our food, and product packaging is a natural first place to look for reassurance. But nutrition information isn’t always easy to interpret.
This is more than just frustrating; unclear instructions can put people with specialist dietary requirements in a vulnerable position.
To help you get to grips with how food and beverage manufacturers in the UK and EU display ingredient data on their products, here’s our quick guide to how to read a nutrition label:
What information is included in a UK/EU nutrition label?
Most pre-packaged foods sold in the UK and EU are required to include nutrition information on the label. This is to help people make healthier choices and also support consumers with specific dietary needs – for example, some diabetics count carbs to keep their blood sugar levels under control.
To standardise the information provided to consumers, EU food packaging (and UK too, where EU protocol is still followed) needs to display the same data:
- Total energy value (in both kilojoules and kilocalories)
- Fat (plus volume of saturated fats, listed as a separate quantity)
All of these figures except the total energy value are listed in grams. And information must be presented in a specific order – energy, fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein, salt – in a clear table format that can be viewed in one field of vision.
Food brands also have the option to provide further information, including monounsaturates and polyunsaturates (types of fat), polyols (sugar alcohols), starch, fibre and vitamin and mineral content.
But while there are standard guidelines across the EU and UK for nutrition labelling information, how that information is calculated can vary between products – which makes packaging difficult to interpret.
If you’re struggling to understand nutritional information on the pre-packaged foods you eat, you’re not alone. However, there are questions you can ask around how data has been calculated that will help you assess whether something fits your criteria – and compare products from different brands like-for-like:
Is the nutritional information calculated per 100g/ml or per serving size?
To make sure nutritional data is consistent and allow consumers to compare one product against another, EU and UK regulations require energy and nutrient calculations to be made per 100g or 100ml. However, brands also have the option to include nutrition information per serving, which can make a big difference to how healthy items are perceived to be.
The challenge for consumers trying to interpret serving size data is that there is no clear guidance on whether a portion size is how much people are supposed to eat, or how much you actually consume. This information is decided by food manufacturers and can vary between brands.
For example, if a 110g chocolate bar has a recommended serving size of 27.5g, this means each bar contains four servings of chocolate – but people may eat the whole bar in one or two sittings.
Which? consumer research conducted in 2020 found that most people tend to overestimate how large portion size is – for example, 92% of respondents did not know that the recommended portion of chocolate fingers is just four biscuits.
If you’re trying to keep track of what you’re eating, the most accurate way to calculate total nutritional intake is to weigh your food and work out the total energy, carbohydrates, fat, sugar and salt you’ve consumed based on the nutrition information provided per 100g.
Are the calculations made based on cooked or uncooked ingredients?
Another way in which nutrition labels can catch consumers out is a variation between information based on cooked or uncooked ingredients. It’s important to double-check this if you’re planning to weigh food before you eat it – or you could be consuming more or less than the recommended serving size on the packaging.
For example, nutritional information on pasta packets tends to be given as sold (based on uncooked weight), yet very few people enjoy a plate of raw pasta! As a general rule of thumb, pasta doubles in weight once cooked. So if the product label says 70g of uncooked pasta is a serving size but you measure out 70g of cooked pasta, you’re effectively only eating half a portion.
Another category where cooked versus uncooked weight matters is meat. Most manufacturers calculate their nutritional information based on meat’s uncooked weight, however many people weigh their serving once the meat is cooked. As meat loses around 25% of its weight during cooking and fat is often added as part of the cooking process, you may end up eating more protein, fat and calories than you intended by measuring after cooking.
Serving size calculations can impact the nutritional value of beverages as well. For example, fruit cordial may list 82 grams of sugar for every 100 ml of cordial, which seems alarmingly high. However, when that cordial is diluted, the sugar content is reduced to 10-11g per serving. But some drinks may list their nutritional information as per the diluted serving.
Does the nutrition label list sodium or salt?
UK and EU nutritional labelling generally uses the term salt because it’s easy for consumers to understand. However, in some markets, the volume of sodium is included on product packaging as manufacturers believe this can be calculated more accurately and it is useful for people monitoring their sodium intake.
Understanding the difference between sodium and salt is important if you’re monitoring your salt intake for health reasons.
Sodium is a naturally occurring mineral found within most foods, whereas salt is the common name for sodium chloride, a dietary mineral added to food for seasoning. In addition, sodium bicarbonate is frequently found in prepackaged foods (and can come from sources other than table salt).
Sodium helps the body regulate blood pressure, control muscle contraction and balance fluids in the body (in conjunction with other electrolytes). But consuming too much salt can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks. High levels of salt can be found in unexpected foods such as pastries and soups, which is why it’s so important to understand nutrition labels.
The total salt content is calculated by working out the total sodium in products (both naturally occurring and derived from salt), multiplying it by 2.5 and then dividing it by 1,000. So 200mg of sodium is equivalent to 0.5 grams of salt.
Do you consume the recommended number of calories per day?
In addition to providing numerical values for the total energy, fat, sugar, salt and carbohydrate contained in food products, manufacturers may also display this information on the nutrition label as a percentage of your daily allowance.
While this can help you understand how much food you need, the percentages are calculated based on an adult consuming 2,000 kcals per day – which is less than the average recommendation of 2,500 kcals per day for men.
Daily percentages may also be incorrect for people that are following a specific diet plan, for example:
- Sportspeople with a nutrition plan that is higher in protein than the general recommended daily allowance
- Consumers trying to lose weight using a calorie-controlled diet
- People living in a very cold climate who need to consume more energy to keep their bodies functioning in low temperatures
- Keto diet followers who eat a high percentage of fat and low percentage of carbohydrates, which doesn’t align with nutrition labelling ratios. For more information on overcoming the challenges of understanding packaging on the keto diet, read our blog post on keto labelling and product claims.
To accommodate consumers with specific dietary requirements, food and beverage brands often include callouts on product packaging such as ‘high in protein’ and ‘source of fibre’; to help people choose foods that fit with their lifestyle or nutrition needs.
Is there any other information you can use to determine how healthy a food product is?
With so many data variables, consumers understandably feel confused about how to read a food nutrition label correctly. To make things simpler, some countries have introduced visual symbols to indicate whether a product is healthy and should be eaten freely, or is less healthy and therefore should be consumed in moderation.
In the UK, a ‘traffic light’ system on the front of pre-packaged foods highlights whether product calories, salt, sugar and fat content are high, medium or low by colour coding the information red, orange or green. This quick guide can help you make healthier choices – but like the daily percentage figures, information is calculated based on national guidelines so may not fit everyone’s dietary requirements.
The system is different for EU countries including France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. Here, a Nutri-Score is displayed on the front of the packet. Although it’s colour-coded like the UK traffic light system, Nutri-Scores are calculated as an overall rating after valuing positive nutrition (fibre, protein, fruits, vegetables, nuts and healthy oils) against nutrients to limit or avoid (sugars, saturated fats and salt).
For a deeper dive into how visual systems vary between regions, read our blog post on why front of pack nutrition labels are a headache for brands going international.
What’s the secret to reading a food nutrition label?
With so many things to consider, you can see why people get confused about the nutritional content of food. Reading a product nutrition label is more complex than it looks.
To understand the composition of your food in greater detail, our best advice is to take your time when reading the label.
Checking information such as the recommended serving size, whether the product displays information per serving size as well as per 100g, and whether data is based on cooked or uncooked weight will help you to decide whether you’re eating the right amount for your needs. And if you’re at all in doubt, weigh your food and use the data per 100g/ml to accurately calculate what you’re consuming.
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