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Food Labels 101 - What it says and what it means

Reading the label of a packaged food can at times be confusing, and at times contradictory.  I am here to explain a few key words that appear often on our everyday packaged foods.  What do terms like 'natural', 'lite', or 'use by', actually mean?


‘Use by’

Found on pre-packed foods that quickly go bad and may be dangerous if eaten past their time (i.e. pre-packed uncooked meat and fish, ready meals, pastry products, sandwiches and some dairy foods).

* it is illegal for shops to sell produce past this date.


‘Best before’

Found on longer-lasting pre-packed foods where flavour, smell, appearance or texture might start to change after this date (i.e. bread, hard cheeses, frozen and tinned products).  Storage information must be given as well.

* it is not illegal to sell food past this date, provided it is fit to eat, but you would expect to pay less.

** exceptions to date marking: fruit and vegetables, alcoholic drinks containing 10% or more of alcohol, wines, liqueurs, breads and bakery normally eaten within 24hrs and very long-lasting products such as salt, vinegar and sugar.



Applies to foods with a limited shelf life sold shortly after catching, harvesting, butchering or processing.  It excludes products that have been tinned, dried, cooked, frozen, salted, smoked, vacuum packed or chemically processed to extend its shelf life.


‘Fruit juice / Juice drink’

Fruit juice must contain 100% fruit juice.  If made from concentrate, it must say so. A juice drink can legally contain only low levels of ‘pure’ fruit and include added sugar and artificial flavouring, sweeteners and colouring.



Product which has been made in a domestic kitchen or a commercial building that is as close to a domestic kitchen as is practicable.  It implies traditional methods, using raw ingredients prepared by hand from scratch.



Single ingredient foods that have not been altered in a way that changes their flavour, colour or shelf life (i.e. butter, cream, traditional cheeses, yoghurt, jam, marmalade and smoked fish and meats).  Similarily, a flavouring derived from a single source using methods such as crushing, distillation or solvent extraction is ‘natural.’



Individual product or ingredient that has had minimal processing and no added flavourings, including sugar and preservatives (i.e. traditional jams and marmalades can claim to be made with ‘pure fruit’ if they contain traditional ingredients such as pectin, but not preservatives such as sulphur dioxide).



No legal or generally agreed definition.

Might apply to the level of fat, Calories, food texture or in comparison with other products made by the same firm.


‘Free from’

Can be misleading where a food should not be present in the first place such as vegetable oils that claim to be ‘cholesterol free’ (cholesterol only occurring naturally in animal products).  In some cases there may be residue such as with alcohol where a product can legally contain up to 0.05% alcohol.


‘Reduced lactose’

Product should have at least 25% less lactose than standard milk products.


(photo courtesy of

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