Under EU Regulations, food labels should give you information about the food inside the packaging, shelf life and storage instructions to help you make informed decisions about the foods you buy.
Food labels should also show an ingredients list with the most common allergens clearly emphasised so they stand out from the other ingredients.
Food producers must emphasise allergens within the ingredients listed on the label of pre-packed foods.
To do this, they might:
- use bold, underline or italics
- change the colour of the text
There are 14 specified substances or products causing allergies or intolerances which must be highlighted:
- cereals containing gluten
- crustaceans - including prawns, crabs, lobster and crayfish
- nuts - including brazil nuts, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, cashews and macadamia nuts
- celery and celeriac
- molluscs - including clams, mussels, whelks, oysters and squid
- sulphur dioxide/sulphites (a preservative found in some dried fruit) - but only when present in concentrations over 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/l
Short statements like "Contains nuts" or "Contains shellfish" are no longer allowed on food labels unless the product isn't required to display an ingredient list. For example, wine is not required to display an ingredient list as it contains more than 1.2% alcohol and so may display a "contains sulphites" statement on the label.
These Regulations also state that allergen information must be available for all food sold loose or non pre-packed. This includes food sold from deli counters, retail outlets and food served by mass caterers in hotels, restaurants, cafes and takeaway establishments etc.
In Scotland, food businesses have a certain amount of freedom regarding the manner in which they provide allergy information. This may be provided on menus, blackboards, separate allergy sheets or verbally.
If allergen information is to be provided verbally, the business must display a sign to inform customers how they can obtain food allergen information. Discuss your food allergy with the serving staff to ensure you get food which is safe for you to eat.
Since December 2016 it's been mandatory for the majority of pre-packed foods to display a nutrition declaration for the product. This is usually referred to as back of pack nutrition labeling.
Nutrition labelling: Calories and Reference Intake (RI)
Nutrition labels must display the amount of energy (calories and kilojoules) and the amount of fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins and salt (all expressed in grams) present in 100g (or 100 ml) of the food.
In addition to the mandatory requirements above, nutrition information may also be expressed per portion provided the number of portions present in the pack is quoted.
The amount of energy in foods and drinks must be shown in kilocalories (kcal) and kilojoules (kJ). As a guide:
- the average man needs around 2,500kcal (10,500kJ) a day to maintain his weight
- the average woman needs around 2,000kcal (8,400kJ)
These can vary depending on an individual's age and levels of physical activity, among other factors.
For children, calorie intake will vary depending on a number of factors - such as age and how physically active they are.
Reference Intake (RI)
The Reference Intake (RI) is a guide to the approximate daily amount of nutrients (fats, saturated fats, salt and sugar) and energy you need for a healthy diet. This is shown as a percentage (%) on the food label.
RI values are based on an average-sized woman doing an average amount of physical activity. As part of a healthy balanced diet, an adult's RI for a day are:
- energy: 2,000kcal (8,400 kJ)
- total fat: 70g
- saturates: 20g
- carbohydrate: 260g
- total sugars: 90g
- protein: 50g
- salt: 6g
These values can vary from person to person, but give a useful indication of how much the average person needs.
More information on mandatory nutrition labelling can be found on the Food Standards Scotland (FSS) website.
Front of Pack (FOP) Nutrition Labelling
Many food producers also display voluntary FOP nutrition information using a colour-coded labelling system to highlight the nutrition content of pre-packaged food and drink.
The colours show if the product contains high, medium or low levels of fat, sugars and salt:
- red means high - you should try to have these less often and in smaller amounts
- amber means medium - you can have these most of the time
- green means low - the more greens on the label, the healthier the choice
Most labels carry a mixture of red, amber and greens. Try to buy products that are a mixture of amber and greens as these are often healthier choices.
The use of plain or single colour labelling is acceptable, providing it does not mislead or confuse the consumer.
Most foods and drinks must be marked with either a 'Use by' or ‘Best before’ date. These dates are dependent on the correct storage of the product.
Use by date
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
- dairy products
- prepared salads
You should never consume food or drink after its 'use by' date, even if it looks and smells fine.
For the 'use by' date to be a valid guide, you must follow the storage instructions on the packet. Food and drink will spoil more quickly if it hasn't been stored correctly.
Best before date
A ‘best before’ date is about food quality.
It won't cause you any harm consuming food and drink after this date, however, it might not look or taste its best.
More information on date marking can be found in the WRAP labelling guidance.
To ensure food remains safe to eat, you should always:
- follow the storage instructions on labels ('keep refrigerated', 'store in a cool and dry place', 'refrigerate after opening')
- consume it within the numbers of days given on the label ('once opened, use within 3 days')
When storing food and drink in the fridge, make sure the temperature is below 5°C (use a fridge thermometer).
More about storing food safely
Additional information on food labelling and composition standards is available on the FSS website.