When can you trust a food’s label?


You’ve seen nutrition and quality labels on food products. It’s not easy to know what they all really mean. Does natural really mean what it says?  Red Tractor meat sounds pretty good, but what’s really behind the label?

Seeing as Tesco have been passing off their fake farms as real, you have plenty of reason to be skeptical. We often find the descriptions used to promote food sales promise much, but in reality turn out to be little more than marketing ‘greenwash’.

Some food companies are making positive changes. Recently Dolmio’s pasta sauce introduced a new label advising consumers that its products that are higher in fat, salt, and sugar should be only eaten “occasionally”. Part of a new 5-year health initiative (yes, Dolmio’s 5-year health plan!), it shows how consumer demand for ‘healthier’ foods is driving market changes.

But there is still huge improvement to go, meanwhile here are a few things to learn about labelling when buying food.

Don’t let nutrition labels fool you

You may have noticed the front of packet ‘traffic light’ system implemented a few years ago, designed to give customers a quick idea of salt, sugar, fat, saturated and calorie quantities in everyday food.

Well intentioned as it sounds, the red (high) amber (medium) and green (low) indicators have received criticism for their simplicity. They suggest Diet Coke, and many fizzy drinks like it, are perfectly healthy (the soft drink has green ratings in all five categories) when numerous investigations – like this one – point to the contrary.

Also in our ever-changing world, what is deemed as ‘unhealthy’ is continously changing, it used to be fat, now it’s sugar!

Note where it’s from

Showing country of origin on any food product is required by law. This way, you’ll know if a shop selling asparagus from a farm ‘down the road’ (also known as Peru) in October is fresh (tip: it’s not). Also, food with as many air miles under its belt as the Starship Enterprise doesn’t exactly constitute as ecologically friendly (or just buy direct from your local food producers).

No n-egglecting

When it comes to raw eggs, there are a few things to look out for. The British Lion is the UK’s most successful food safety mark.

egg lion legislation

‘Grade A’ quality chickens’ eggs are labelled accordingly, whereas if an egg is deemed any other quality, indication of that grade isn’t mandatory. The same goes for all species of hen – duck, quail, goose included. Free-range and organic are stated on the carton, but more intensive methods of production aren’t.

Here’s a cool tip: to get more information from each individual egg, take note of its stamp. It might read like this: 0UK12345, where:

  • ‘0’ denotes the eggs are organic (1 means free range, 2 barn-reared, 3 caged hens)
  • ‘UK’ is the country of origin
  • ‘12345’ identifies the farm

Look out for quality labels

For organic, look out for the EU green leaf label on your products.  The term ‘organic’ is protected under European law and there are nine government approved certification bodies in the UK.  The Organic Farmer’s and Growers’, as well as Soil Association’s ‘Organic Label’, for example, guarantee even higher organic standards than the European minimum.

Pasture meat and dairy, stamped with the ‘Pasture for Life’ logo, is guaranteed to come from animals kept purely on grass and pasture.

Also Marine Stewardship Council blue label on fish means recognises sustainable fishing practice.


For animal welfare, ‘Red Tractor’ and ‘Lion Quality’ support a higher standard than most, but take a few compromises in the welfare of animals. Red Tractor’s standards, for instance, allow 20 chickens to live within the space of one square metre. Not very happy hens, in other words. ‘RSPCA Assured’ means the animal welfare standards are relatively high.

Check out Farms not Factories for more information on labelling of meat.

Understand all standards are relative

Look out for words like ‘natural’, ‘added vitamins’ and ‘reduced sugar’, and be vigilant in avoiding them. Products emblazoned with seemingly healthy incentives are typically trying to draw your attention to these aspects in the hope you won’t investigate the rest of the product.


Many claims that products have ‘natural ingredients’ aren’t actually true. For example, a detergent with “plant-derived soaps” also adds just as much chemicals as any other.

That being said, ‘organic’ should be taken seriously, as there are strict guidelines ensuring any organic food is what it says it is. Due to the high cost of the organic name, this isn’t to say all food not labelled organic doesn’t possess a similar standard. This is especially the case with vegetables from small local producers.

In purchasing a product, you are essentially voting for it. Labels are out to either assist or misdirect you, so staying sufficiently armed with a few pointers while shopping can ensure your vote – if you’ll excuse the analogy – doesn’t end up in the wrong box.


Hugh Thomas

Hugh Thomas

Hugh Thomas writes for The Guardian and Time Out about food and dining.


  1. Dan Crossley

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