Skip to main content
Home > Health Defence Blog > What’s in a label? The five tools you need to decipher food labels!
Health Defence Blog

Welcome to the Health Defence Blog - a blog about health, wellness and a healthier you. Brought to you by the Health Defence team at Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, you'll find up-to-date information on a range of topics from what's in your food to the latest advice on e-cigarettes!


Megan - Health Promotion Specialist

March 20, 2016

Reading food labels can give you a lot of information about the food you’re eating and help you to make healthier choices. But with so much information on a label it can be hard to know what is helpful and what isn’t. Here we give you 5 quick tools to make your next shopping trip a little bit easier.

1. Serving size

The manufacturer decides what a ‘serving’ is and this can vary between products. Put simply, it is one portion of that product. However, that doesn’t mean that the serving size is always sensible, or similar to what you think a serving is. For example, there are 4 scones in a packet, but the label states that this is 8 servings. Hence eating one scone, you are getting double the calories, fat and sugar (i.e. 2 serves).

  • Pros: quickly see how many calories, fat, saturates, sugar and salt you would consume by eating one serve.
  • Cons: one serving may not be what you think it is.

2. The ‘Traffic Light system’

(hint: read on to find out how to get your free traffic light card)

This quick and easy guide helps to interpret labels. It rates foods in regards to the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt they contain:

  • Red = high amount. Limit your intake.
  • Amber = moderate amount. If most lights are orange, this food can be eaten most of the time.
  • Green = low amount. This is a healthier choice. The more green lights, the better.

A food label may look something like this: food label

(This food is low in fat and saturates, high in sugar and has a moderate amount of salt)

  • Pros: quick and easy to use. Many large brands and supermarket chains have adopted this labelling system.
  • Cons: it is not compulsory to display the traffic light colours and it doesn’t tell you how many calories are in a food item.

This table explains how the nutrients in foods are coded for red, amber or green. It shows the amount per 100g of food. If a food label doesn’t display the ‘traffic lights’, you can still compare the nutrients in a food to these guidelines:Hint: When comparing two similar products (e.g. breakfast cereal) look at the ‘per 100g’ column (not per serve). This way you are comparing like for like.

3. Ingredients list

Ingredients are listed in descending weight order – the one that weighs the most is listed first. If sugar, fat or salt (or one of their other names) appears in the first few ingredients, this may not be the healthiest choice.

You may also see a range of numbers in the ingredients list – not all of these are bad! For example, ‘E300’ refers to ascorbic acid = vitamin C! This is often used in pre-cut fruit to stop it from browning.

  • Pros: easy to check exactly what is in the food item and in what quantity. Remember, the lower down the list that fat, sugar and salt are, the better.
  • Cons: some ingredients can be listed under a different name, for example, sugar can also be called: glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose,  lactose, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, syrup, hydrolysed starch and invert sugar.

4. Clever marketing

Beware of some of the tools used to encourage us to buy certain foods…

  • ‘Lite’ or ‘light’: means this food contains 30% less of one nutrient. For example, it could contain 30% less fat than the standard product. Hint: sometimes it can also mean ‘light’ in colour!
  • Low fat and reduced fat isn’t the same thing. Low fat means that there is 3g (or less) of fat per 100g of food (or a ‘green light’). Reduced fat means there is 25% less fat compared to the original product. Just because a food is labelled as ‘reduced fat’ doesn’t mean you can eat more of it.
  • Check foods labelled as ‘low fat’ as they might be higher in sugar (to make it taste better).
  • No added sugar: means that the manufacturer hasn’t added sugar to the food. However, this food could still be naturally high in sugar (e.g. fruit).
  • Pros: can help to identify healthier options, for example ‘low fat’.
  • Cons: can be misleading, for example, ‘lite’ versus ‘light’ – put on your detective’s hat and inspect the label closer!

5. Reference Intake (RI)

The ‘Reference Intake’ (previously known as the RDA (recommended daily amount) or GDA (guideline daily amount)), is displayed as a percentage on a food label. It tells us approximately how much energy and nutrients an average adult needs per day for a healthy diet.

For example, this food label shows that the sugar in one 45g portion provides 10.5g of sugar or 12% of your daily RI.

(Note: this product provides you with 12% of your RI for sugar, but is also considered ‘red’ or high in sugar as per the ‘traffic light system’ – don’t confuse these two different tools). 

percentage RI example

The percentages (%RI) are based on the maximum energy and nutrients that the average adult needs. These values are:

Energy Fat Saturated fat Sugars Salt
2000 kcal 70g 20g 90g 6g
  • Pros: quick to read and can give a useful guide of how much energy we need each day (and how this is broken down into nutrients).
  • Cons: can be hard to interpret and confusing – they are often displayed alongside the ‘traffic light system’. Check if the %RI has been given per 100g of food or per serve/portion. Lastly, the %RI is based on an ‘average’ person, so it should be used as a guide only, as we are all different.


Order your free pocket-sized ‘traffic light’ card today – get in touch with our Health Information team: email

***Disclaimer: always seek medical advice before starting a new diet, exercise regime or medication. The information in these articles is not a substitute for professional advice from a GP, registered dietitian or other health practitioner.

Share this page
  • Was this helpful ?
  • YesNo