Understanding Food Labels

The label on a food package should give you the information you need when you’re deciding whether to buy it or leave it on the shelf.

Consumers should be able to be confident with their food choices and be able to buy according to their particular requirements, be it for diet or health, personal tastes and preferences or cost.

For business

From 13 December 2016 most prepacked foods must display a nutrition declaration as required by Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. The Department of Health has produced Technical Guidance on Nutritional Labelling which provides details of these requirements which can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/technical-guidance-on-nutrition-labelling

Food Standards Scotland and the Food Standards Agency have produced a Nutrition Declaration Q&A Guidance document to supplement the Department of Health Guidance with some examples to help with interpretation of these requirements.

Following detailed discussions with the food industry, health organisations and other interested parties, the Food Standards Agency in Scotland launched a new, front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme to help consumers see at a glance what is in their food. The new label is colour-coded red, amber and green, and highlights 'percentage reference intakes' (formerly known as guideline daily amounts), to show how much fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and energy is in a product.

Red colour coding means the food or drink is high in this nutrient and we should try to have these foods less often or eat them in small amounts.

Amber means medium, and if a food contains mostly amber you can eat it most of the time.

Green means low, and the more green lights a label displays the healthier the choice.


The Food Standards Agency has issued guidance to help businesses design front-of-pack labelling for their products.

The guidance was developed by the Department of Health, the Food Standards Agency, and devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in collaboration with the British Retail Consortium.

For more information see our Guide to creating a label and The National Archive

For consumers

Allergy labelling

Food allergies or intolerance can make eating buying food – whether it’s from a shop, restaurant or online – a little more difficult.

The Food Standards Agency has a guide to help you to buy food safely when you have a food allergy or intolerance.

Front of pack nutrition labelling

The big supermarkets and many food manufacturers display Colour-Coded nutrition information on the front of most pre-packaged food and drink. This is very useful when you want to compare different food products at a glance.

The colours show you easily if the food or drink has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. You will often find a mixture of red, amber and green colours; if you want to make a healthier choice try to go for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds.

  • Red means high, these are the foods and drinks we should cut down on. Try to have these less often and in small amounts.
  • Amber means medium, so you can have foods and drinks with mostly ambers on the label most of the time.
  • Green means low, the more greens on the label, the healthier the choice.


If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle trying to decide between two similar products, check to see if there's a nutrition label on the front of the pack. This will help you to quickly assess how your choices stack up. If you buy a food with all or mostly greens on the label, you know straight away that it’s a healthier choice.

Calories and Reference Intakes

The front of pack nutrition label also provides information on the amount of energy and the number of grams of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt in a serving or portion of the food or drink. The amount that a portion contributes to your daily diet is given as a percentage of the Reference Intake. Be aware, however, that the manufacturer’s idea of a portion may be different from yours.

Understanding Energy

Calories are a measure of the amount of energy in food and drink. Knowing the calorie content can help us keep track of the amount of energy we are eating and drinking, to make sure we're not consuming too much. As a guide, the average man needs around 2,500kcal (10,500kJ) daily to maintain his weight, and the average woman needs around 2,000kcal (8,400kJ). For children, this will vary depending on their age. NHS inform has more information on calorie intakes for children. On labels, the calorie content is given in kcals, which is short for kilocalories, and also in kJ, which is short for kilojoules. Kilojoules are the metric measurement of calories (the calorie figure multiplied by 4.2).

Understanding Reference Intakes

You may be familiar with the term Guideline Daily Amount, or GDA, that used to appear on food labels. This has been replaced by Reference Intake, or RI, but the basic principle is the same. Reference Intakes are useful guidelines about the approximate daily amount of particular nutrients and energy required for a healthy diet. These requirements can vary from person to person, but RIs give a useful indication of how much the average person needs.

The contribution the energy and nutrients (fats, saturated fats, salt and sugars) in the food or drink make towards the daily Reference Intakes is provided as a percentage. This information gives an indication of how a particular food or drink fits into your daily diet. For example the label below, taken from a box of apple pies, shows that each pie will provide you with 19.2g sugars, which represents 21% of your RI for sugars(or about a fifth of an adults RI for sugars).

Some examples of front-of-pack nutrition labels

Front of Pack Nutrition Label Example 1

Front of Pack Label example 2

Date Labelling

Most foods and drinks must be marked with either a ‘Use By’ date or ‘Best Before’ date. These dates are dependent on the correct storage of that product – see storage information below.

A ‘Use By’ date is about food safety and is used on foods that go off quickly, such as raw meat or fish, cooked sliced meats and dairy products. Food should not be eaten after its use by date as it may not be safe even if it looks and smells fine.


A ‘Best Before’ date is about food quality rather than food safety, so after this date expires the food will not be harmful, but its flavour, colour or texture might begin to deteriorate.

Storage Information

Follow any instructions on packets and tins e.g. 'keep refrigerated', 'store in a cool and dry place', 'refrigerate after opening', 'not suitable for freezing'.

If the instructions say 'once opened, use within …days', it is important to follow this information – even if means using the food before the end of the date shown on the label.

Remember to check your fridge temperature – it should be below 5°C (use a fridge thermometer).

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