A food label stuffed… with information

Do you know how much sugar is in a yogurt? Or which minerals are in the breakfast milk? Sometimes food labels can seem like a real puzzle, but they are easier to understand than you think.

Many consumers in Europe have difficulty understanding the nutritional information presented on a food label. A 2017 study on the perception of the Portuguese population’s knowledge on food packaging and food labels showed that 40% of people struggle with interpreting it. When it comes to buying, consumers, particularly the most informed ones, give a lot of importance to specific attributes of a product – gluten-free, lactose-free, GMO-free, for example – but recognise that it can be challenging to understand nutritional information.

Beyond the nutritional quality of food, brands and retailers have sought to improve the quality of the information available on packaging. One way is creating standards that help consumers make the right choices. If you have just arrived from the supermarket with your groceries, open your reusable bag, take the food you prefer and observe the packaging. It is time to understand the food label.

The nutrition facts table

The nutritional information table is nothing new on food labels. It is a table showing the average values of energy, lipids, carbohydrates, sugars, fibre, proteins, and salt that each 100g or 100ml of the food contains. Generally, there are also values for the average portion indicated, depending on the food and its Reference Intake (RI) percentage.

Illustration of different foods and its calories: tomato, carrots, burger, aubergine, cucumber.
  • Energy

Presented in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal), it corresponds to the total caloric value provided by food to the body.

Illustration of olive oil bottle dispenser.
  • Lipids

Best known as “fats”, they are essential for transporting vitamins, hormone production, and organ protection. The quality of the fats, saturated or unsaturated, should also be considered when choosing heavily processed foods. Saturated fats – found in many animal foods such as butter or eggs – can raise cholesterol levels if consumed excessively.

Illustration of man holding a bread slice.
  • Carbohydrates

Unjustly seen as the enemy, they provide muscles and the brain with the necessary energy. Examples of carbohydrates: sugar (found in processed products such as biscuits, chocolate or soft drinks; it is also naturally present in fruit and cereals), starch (in bread, rice, potatoes and pasta) and fibre (bread, wholemeal pasta and pulses). So, pay attention to the various sources you consume throughout the day.

Illustration of woman holding broccoli.
  • Fibre

Fundamental for the control of glycaemia and cholesterol, and the proper functioning of the intestine. It is also a carbohydrate.

Illustration of woman holding a box with eggs.
  • Proteins

Essential nutrients that promote the growth and maintenance of the human body. Proteins are structural components of cells.

Illustration of two women taking salt out of a bowl, using spoons.
  • Salt

If intake is in excess, increased blood pressure is one of the adverse effects. But salt is important for the body’s functioning, being necessary for the activity of the muscles and nervous system.

What is the Reference Intake?

The RI intends to help interpret nutritional information, serving as reference or order of magnitude. It is a suggested value to the amount of nutrients needed to meet the nutritional requirements of an average adult. It is usually calculated for nutrients, energy, vitamins, and minerals. For example, the calorie RI is around 2,000 kcal per day for healthy adults. However, this value may change according to gender, age or physical activity, among other factors.

The golden rules of labelling

According to the European Union (EU), food labels should:

  • Contain the complete list of ingredients, including any additives, information on allergens and the number of certain ingredients, presented in descending order by weight. The first ingredient in the list is the one with the highest concentration.
  • The percentage of certain ingredients that appear in the product’s name is highlighted on the food label or are essential to characterise the food or distinguish it from other foods. For example, the label of an apple pie should indicate the percentage of apple in the list of ingredients.
  • Indicate allergens clearly and distinctively from other ingredients by using a different font/size or background colour.
  • Use the word contains to present the allergens (e.g. “contains gluten” or “contains sulphites”) if no list of ingredients is provided.

Additives are often indicated by their “E” number. It means that the food additive is authorised in the EU and has passed safety and quality control tests. To find out what they are, their legal name and their purpose, you can refer to the complete list of all authorised food additives.

Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, lactose-free

The labelling "vegetarian", "vegan", "gluten-free", and "lactose-free" are not mandatory, as the list of ingredients and allergens is already compulsory.

Origin, preservation, and instructions

In addition to nutritional, ingredient, and allergen information, food labels should also contain information on the weight or net volume, country of origin, name and location of the producer, special conditions of use and storage (e.g., “consume within three days after opening”, or “store in the refrigerator after opening”), as well as instructions for use.

Nutri-Score: less is more

In addition to all this information, it is possible that you have already crossed paths with a colour code and letters present in front of a package of processed food products. This is called Nutri-Score and is a food labelling system that allows consumers to quickly assess the nutritional profile of a food using a colour system.

Nutri-score logo.

Nutri-Score classifies food on a coloured scale, where the letters A to E correspond respectively to the colours dark green, light green, yellow, orange and red.

Thus, intuitively, dark green (or A) is associated with foods with a more balanced nutritional composition, and red (or E) is associated with foods with higher amounts of fats, sugars, or salt.

And how is this nutritional “score” calculated?

An algorithm assigns points to the various nutrients in a product. The calculation is done by adding the points for the less desirable nutrients (such as fats, salt and sugar) and subtracting the score for the more desirable nutrients such as protein, fibre or fruit, and vegetables. The lower the total score, the healthier the food is. The Nutri-Score should be used in addition to the rest of the information present on the food label.

It is essential to realise that the nutritional table on the packaging does not always show the proportion between fibre and fruit/vegetables/nuts. It can affect the final result. For example in the case of sweet potato, it is a starchy vegetable but does not count in the vegetable percentage.

It is important to note that Nutri-Score should be used complementary to the rest of the Nutrition Facts table. The Nutri-Score system makes choosing between similar industrially produced foods of the same category easier. Nutri-Score should not compare plain and chocolate milk but, instead, compare different chocolate milk brands.

Fruits, vegetables and unprocessed whole grains, essential parts of the Mediterranean diet, are exempt from the application of Nutri-Score. The label is found only on processed products.

Remember, you don’t need the Nutri-Score label to know that your favourite fruit will always get an A grade.