Understanding food labels 

Understanding food labels 

At first glance, food labels may appear a little complicated, but once you understand the basics and the key information to look out for, such as calories, and levels of fat, salt and sugar per portion, you will realise that a mindful approach to what you buy – and eventually eat – is a useful way of managing and maintaining a healthy weight.

Front of pack nutrition labelling often follows a traffic light system, which is designed to easily guide you on products that may be high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in calories, fat, saturates, sugars, and salt . Find out what to look for on a label on the British Heart Foundation website.


It’s important to understand energy values on food labels. Many products will list the calories on the front of the pack, along with further key information such as fat (and saturated fat), sugar, and salt.

Food labels will almost always display energy values in kilojoules (“KJ”) and kilocalories (“kcal”, usually referred to as “calories”). The “kcal” is the key value to look out for in order to determine the amount of calories within the food.

What should my daily intake of calories be?

Within a healthy, balanced diet, men need around 2,500 calories a day to maintain a steady weight, whilst that figure is around 2,000 calories a day for women.

However, these values can vary depending on age, metabolism and levels of physical activity, among other things.

Serving size

It is also important to assess the size of the product in relation to the amount of calories per “serving” or “portion”. The value may only be listed per 100g of product, which may be larger or smaller than a standard serving, or its suggested serving size may be a lot less than you would normally serve yourself, so it is worth noting this.


Fat is high in energy (calories), which if consumed in excess, can easily contribute to weight gain. Too much fat in your diet, especially saturated fats, can also raise your cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Current UK government guidelines advise cutting down on all fats and replacing saturated fat with some unsaturated fat.

When looking at food labels, this is how the traffic light colour is assigned:

Total fat

High in fat: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low in fat: 3g of fat or less per 100g

Saturated fat (“saturates”)

High in saturated fat: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low in saturated fat: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g

Fats to eat

A small amount of fat is an important part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Fat also helps the body absorb certain vitamins, such as vitamins A, D and E, which are termed “fat-soluble”, meaning they can only be absorbed with the help of fats.

Healthier fats to consume are those that are unsaturated, such as fats from oily fish (salmon and mackerel), olive and other vegetable oils, avocadoes, nuts and seeds. Consuming these fats increases “good” cholesterol, and can also help reduce “bad” cholesterol within the blood.

Fats to limit

Saturated fat is found in a range of natural foods, including animal fats, peanuts, and full-fat dairy products, including butter. Many products, including cakes, cream desserts, and cheeses are high in saturated fat.

It is best to limit your intake of saturated fat, as it can easily contribute to weight gain, and increase levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood. Opting for low fat dairy options, such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, and low fat yoghurt, cutting the fat and skin off meat before cooking it, and draining the fat after cooking minced meat, can help you to reduce your saturated fat intake.

 Fats to avoid

Artificial trans fats are produced industrially from vegetable fats for use in certain margarines, snack foods such as biscuits and cakes, and deep-fried fast food.

They are formed when oil goes through a process called hydrogenation, which makes the oil more solid, known as hardening. It can therefore also be referred to as hydrogenated fat.

It is best to avoid trans fats as much as possible, as they can raise the “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood, and also lower the “good” cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.


Most of us, in the UK, consume too much sugar. The kind of sugar we eat too much of is known as the collective term “free sugars”, which are any sugars added to food or drinks, or found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. Many foods that contain added sugars can often be high in calories , and have few other nutrients. Not only can overconsumption of sugar lead to weight gain, but it can also contribute to tooth decay.

In order to consume a healthy balanced diet , we should get the majority of our calories from other kinds of foods that offer more nutrients, such as starchy foods , and fruits and vegetables . This is why the Eatwell Guide indicates that we should only consume small amounts of foods that are high in added sugars.

A food label will show the level of sugar within the product or within a suggested serving as:

High in sugars: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low in sugars: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g


Small amounts of salt are essential for our health. However, consuming more than the recommended levels of salt is not difficult as many foods contain added salt for flavour and preservation purposes. According to Consensus Action on Salt & Health, adults need less than 1 gram of salt per day and children need even less. As a nation we are all eating approximately 8.1g of salt per day, far more than we need and more than the recommended maximum of 6g per day.

Salt increases blood pressure. Raised blood pressure (hypertension) is the major factor which causes strokes, heart failure and heart attacks. It is therefore really important to look at food labels to see how much salt is in the foods you choose.

Here is an indication of what signifies “high” and “low” levels of salt:

High in salt: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g
Low in salt: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g

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