GOOD food labelling is essential if we’re to know what we’re actually buying. So many foods contain unhealthy levels of fat, sugar and salt, along with numerous additives and flavourings, but food labels often fail to make this clear and can sometimes even be deliberately deceptive.
What European Food Labels have to Tell you:
- Weight or volume
- Use by
- Genetically modified (GM)
- Place of origin
- Nutrition information
- Artificial sweeteners
Weight or Volume
An e symbol written next to the weight means that this is the average weight of the product, but that the weight of each pack may vary slightly. Use by dates are provided on highly perishable foods and it is illegal for shops to sell the food after this date. Best before dates are used on less perishable foods. Both use by and best before dates assume food has been correctly stored. Sell by or display-until dates are used by shops for stock control, and it is not an offence to sell food past its sell by date. However it wise to not eat foods that are older than their use by date because they could potentially be a health risk. Food eaten after its best before date may not be dangerous, but may no longer be at its best.
Genetically Modified (GM) Products
Products sold in Europe containing GM ingredients, derivatives or additives must be labelled as GM. But meat or dairy products from animals fed GM feed are not required to be labelled as such. Some foods may also be produced with GM enzymes (e.g. bakery products) but do not have to be labelled as GM. Buying organic food will ensure you avoid GM ingredients, including those used in animal feed.
Place of Origin
There is no legal requirement for a product to display a place of origin except for beef, but labels should declare contact details for a manufacturer or importer. For beef cuts and mince, the country of origin, slaughter and processing must be shown.
Companies are not legally obliged to tell you the amount of nutrients such as calories, fat, sugar, fibre and salt (sodium) in their food – unless a claim is made e.g. low fat or high fibre.
Ingredients, including additives, must be listed in descending order of weight. Labels must state how much of a ‘characterising’ ingredient (such as the strawberry in a strawberry yogurt) is contained in the food (e.g. 5%). Some foods don’t have to declare their ingredients, such as sweets sold in small wrappers, food sold unwrapped from a bakery or delicatessen counter, and restaurant and take-away food. Alcoholic drinks do not need to list their ingredients either. Because ingredients are listed in descending order of weight you can quickly check what the main ingredients are in a product. For example, a chicken pie that lists chicken as the fifth ingredient probably doesn’t contain much chicken.
If a product contains artificial sweeteners it must state ‘with sweeteners’ next to the product name. Many companies deliberately hide this information on the back of the packet, so always read the small print!
To judge the quality of the food which you buy, take a close look at the Nutrition Information panel which many foods display. You can use the guide below to work out if the product contains high levels of fat, sugar or salt (sodium). The servings marked in red are high – those in blue low. Figures are based on 100g. So 20g of fat per 100g serving is high while 3g of fat per 100g serving is low.