Understanding food labels

Food labels often contain lots of nutrition information, but how do you know what each section means?

Example food label

Looking at front-of-pack labels is the easiest way to see whether a food is a healthier choice, but it can also be confusing.

Traffic light system

The labels usually include traffic light colours which show you if the product is high, medium or low in fat, sugar and salt.

  • Red: Eat occasionally

    The more reds on a front-of- pack label, the less healthy the food is likely to be. Try to eat these foods less frequently or only in small amounts.

  • Amber: Eat sometimes

    Amber means a food is neither especially high nor low in a nutrient (fat, sugar or salt), so you can eat foods with all, or mostly, ambers quite often.

  • Green: Eat regularly

    If a food has all or mostly greens, it’s likely to be a healthier choice and you can eat it more often, or in larger amounts.

Nutrients: fat, saturates, sugars and salt

Nutrition labels show the amount of each nutrient in a portion, in grams. The amounts will also be colour-coded with traffic light labels (as mentioned above), so that you can easily see if that amount is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green).

What’s a ‘serving’?

Food labels usually have a recommended ‘serving’ or portion size. It’s important to check the portion size – even similar types of food use different-sized portions.

The example above shows the information for a 30g serving of breakfast cereal, even though many of us would eat more than this.


Energy is measured in kilojoules (kj) and kilocalories (kcal – often called calories). Traffic light labels show the amount in 100g (100ml for drinks) and often the amount in a portion too. Remember to check the portion size on the label so that you don’t under or overestimate the calories you need.

On average, women need about 2,000 calories a day and men need about 2,500 calories a day. Children and older adults tend to need less, but teenagers and very active people may need more.

Reference intake

The ‘reference intake’ shows the percentage of energy, fat, sugar and salt in a portion, out of the healthy maximum amount suitable per day. How much you can have depends on your size and lifestyle. Remember that the recommended maximum amount is an upper limit for most people, not a target to aim for.

What does ‘no added sugar’ mean?

‘No added sugar’ means that manufacturers haven’t added any sugar to the food or drink. But this doesn’t mean that there is no sugar. For example, fruit contains natural sugars, meaning that dried fruit and fruit juices may have amber or even red labels for sugar.

You can check if sugar has been added by reading the ingredients list. As well as ‘sugar’, look out for syrup, honey and words ending in ‘–ose’ (for example, sucrose, glucose and fructose) as these are often sugar by another name. Ingredients are always listed in weight order, so if any of these appear near the top of the list, the product is likely to be very sugary.

Remember, both added and naturally-occurring sugars are calorific and can damage your teeth so try to limit how much you have.

What does ‘reduced-fat’ or ‘low-fat’ mean?

‘Reduced fat’ means that the product has at least 30% less fat than the original version of the product. However, if the original product is high in fat, the reduced-fat version might still be high in fat.

‘Low fat’ means that the product contains no more than 3g of fat per 100g of food.

Reduced-fat or low-fat products can also still be high in calories. Sometimes the fat is replaced with sugar, so read the label to compare the calories, sugar and fat in the original and the lower-fat product.

> Download our guide to food labels complete with a handy credit card-sized cheat-sheet to use while out shopping