How to read food labels

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Tiny fonts, complicated ingredients and lists of seemingly random numbers. Food labelling is pretty confusing for most shoppers, but it can be a major source of stress for the free from community. Here’s a short guide to demystifying some of the language on labels.

The ingredients list
According to the Food Standards Agency:

  • The ingredients list must be listed in descending order of weight, including added water.
  • That means, the ingredient at the top of the list will make up most of the product in question
  • Some foods are exempt from the need to display an ingredients list. These are usually foods with a single ingredient, such as fresh fruit and carbonated water. Foods with two or more ingredients will display a list
  • Percentages for the quantities of each ingredient are only required if the ingredient in question is:
    • Part of the product name (cheese and onion pasty)
    • Emphasised on the label somehow (‘extra cheese’)
    • Normally associated with a product by the consumer (such as fruit in a summer pudding)

Allergens overview
Food businesses are required by law to provide allergen information on their packaging and to handle allergens effectively in food preparation. This is reflected on labels by:

  • Top 14 allergens are always in bold, or emphasised in some other way
  • There may also be an allergy advice statement to guide you to the allergens such as ‘allergens in bold’
  • Some products, such as bottles of wine, are not required to show ingredients lists, but they are still required, by law, to list any top 14 allergens in the product (for example ‘contains sulphites’)

What is may contain labelling?
This is an issue we’ll be exploring a lot in Free From Living. May contain is a term used on packaging when allergens are not an ingredient in a product, but the product may have come into contact with allergens and may not be safe for people with allergies. This is due to the manufacturing process, whereby allergens are handled in the same factory as the ‘free from’ product and guarantees cannot be made around cross-contamination. Experts state that products with ‘may contain’ labelling are not safe to be consumed by people with allergies.

Hidden allergens
If top 14 allergens are included in products, they are, by law required to be mentioned on packaging. Sometimes, however, the allergens may appear in a different form, this is known as a hidden allergen. Even if an allergen is hidden, it will still appear in bold on pack, for example, whey powder (a form of milk) would appear in bold.

Top tips for reading food labels

  • Check the label every time you purchase a product. Manufacturers can change product recipes, processes or factories without warning or notification
  • One way to spot a product recipe that may have been changed is on pack claims such as ‘new recipe’
  • Be careful with loose or unpacked foods. Buffets for example should always label allergens, as should delis and cafes
  • Above all, if you aren’t sure, don’t take the risk