Food labels explained

Looking at food labels

Learn how to understand front-of-pack food labels, and how they can help you make heart-healthy choices more easily.

When the Government recommended a front-of-pack food labelling system to all food retailers and manufacturers, we were thrilled that our campaigning efforts had paid off. The decision was announced in June 2013 and since then the labels have gradually been rolled out on more and more products.

All major retailers have signed up to this scheme although, sadly, not all manufacturers have done so yet. But still, a large proportion of products have the front of pack labels, so it’s a big improvement.

To support this change, we’ve also adopted the this style of nutritional information for Heart Matters recipes.

The BHF’s role

For more than seven years, the BHF has been campaigning for front-of-pack labelling because we want to help make it easier for everyone to make heart-healthy choices. We set up a lobby group of 14 organisations in support of a single front-of-pack labelling scheme including traffic light colours, the words ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’, and the reference intake – and our campaigners took action by responding to a government consultation on front-of-pack labels.

Along with major supermarkets and manufacturers, we were invited to work with the Department of Health on the details of the food labelling scheme. We are one of the first countries in the world to recommend front-of-pack labels that include traffic light colours.

We’re delighted all the major supermarkets are committed to the scheme and look forward to more food manufacturers signing up

Our Chief Executive, Simon Gillespie, said: “We’re delighted all the major supermarkets are committed to the scheme and look forward to more food manufacturers signing up.”

What’s changed?

Information on the front of pack can be provided in one of two formats under the scheme. We will now just either see energy information on its own (especially on products with small packaging, such as a jar of mustard), or energy information plus fat, saturates, sugars and salt - also known as “Energy plus 4”. Front of pack information is voluntary and if it is provided, it cannot be given in isolation – mandatory nutrition information will also be available on the back or side of the pack which will provide more detail.

Traffic light colours

Under the scheme, colours are used to identify the nutrient content of the food per 100g as being high, medium or low. The words might also be added to reinforce the meaning and at least one third of the label should be in colour.

If a portion is bigger than 100g for a food (or 150ml for a drink) then there are additional criteria so that if more than 30% of the reference intake is contained in one portion it will automatically be high/red.

Per portion information

Information is given on the amount of energy, fat, saturates, sugars and salt that are in one portion or one unit (for example, if the product is in single units like biscuits, sliced bread or sausages). The amount that has been defined as a portion can be placed anywhere on the pack, but it is recommended that this goes close to the front of pack information if the consumer is likely to be confused about how many portions there are in a pack.

Percentage reference intakes (RI)

RIs are just a new name for guideline daily amount (GDA). RIs show us the approximate amount of the nutrients and energy are needed for a healthy diet. We’re all different, so this is a guide rather than a set amount, but the percentages give us a guide as to how much a portion of the food can contribute to our daily diet.


Energy is now displayed as kilojoules (kj) as well as kilocalories (kcal). These are both ways of expressing the amount of energy in a food. 1kcal is 4.2kj.

We’re more familiar with using the term calories in the UK, but kilojoules are the metric version. The difference is like comparing pounds and ounces with kilograms and grams.

As well as energy information per portion, information on the energy content per 100g will also be given. However, unlike the four nutrients, energy is not colour-coded.


The terms used to describe the saturated fat content on packaging have varied until now. However, saturates will now be used consistently. Including specific information on this, alongside the total fat content will and will provide an indication of the balance of fats in the product.

Read more about different types of fat and what they mean for your health.


The term “sugars” applies to the total sugar content of the food or drink – both added and naturally occurring.

Whereas in the past, the thresholds for foods with naturally occurring sugars were applied differently to those with added sugars, now there will be no differentiation. Look out for the words “with no added sugars” and “contains naturally occurring sugars” if you want to know that all the sugars are naturally occurring (such as in unsweetened fruit juice or natural yoghurt).

Food labelling timeline

July 2011 EU decision allows the UK Government to recommend a single front-of-labelling scheme.

Summer 2012 We encouraged campaigners to respond to the Government consultation and produced a shorter version of the consultation to make it easier for them. Nearly 1,000 people used this and responded, earning the BHF a mention in the Government’s response.

June 2012 More than 800 people responded to a BHF survey. Some 65 per cent said they would prefer to buy products using a combined nutritional food label, and 65 per cent found the colours red, amber and green helpful. Thanks to all Heart Matters members who supported us.

August 2012 Tesco announced it would support a hybrid labelling system that incorporated traffic lights and guideline daily amounts (GDAs). This was quickly followed by similar announcements by Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons and Iceland.

June 2013 The Government unveils their voluntary front-of-pack labelling scheme, which includes traffic light colours and reference intakes (replacing GDAs). Major manufacturers such as Mars UK, McCain, PepsiCo UK and Premier Foods sign up, as well as all major supermarkets.

January 2014 and beyond There are consistent food labels on about 50 per cent of products in major supermarkets. We are now calling on all manufacturers to adopt the scheme.

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