What exactly is in your food?

Foods that are wrapped (or pre-packed) have lots of information for consumers printed on the packaging, including the list of ingredients, the nutritional information storage instructions, the weight or volume, storage instructions, cooking instructions and more. If the food isn’t pre-wrapped for sale, then the only information that’s required are the Allergens.

There might also be marketing information, pictures, offers, games, competitions….a lot to take in! In terms of knowing what is in the food you are eating, the two important pieces are the Ingredients List and the Nutritional Analysis.

So, what has to be on the label? According to EU law, the information that is mandatory and must appear on the label of a prepacked food is:

(a) the name of the food
(b) the list of ingredients

(c) allergens or processing aids used in the manufacture or preparation of a food and still present in the finished product, even if in an altered form
(d) the quantity of certain ingredients (listed as a %)
(e) the net quantity (weight or volume)
(f) either the Best Before or Use By date

(g) any special storage conditions and/or conditions of use (temperature, time)
(h) the name or business name and address of the food business

(i) the country of origin or place of provenance, if applicable
(j) instructions for use, if required
(k) with respect to beverages containing more than 1.2 % by volume of alcohol, the actual alcoholic strength by volume
(l) Nutrition Declaration

The Ingredients List tells you what was used to make the food, and these are listed in order by weight from largest to smallest. In other words, the first ingredient listed is the largest amount, right down to the last ingredient which is the smallest amount.

The whole E number issue can be confusing, and sometimes people may think that E numbers are all bad. In fact, many naturally occurring foods have their own E number like seaweed (carrageenan or agar), silver and gold even! Many other e-numbers are given to the substances that are extracted from natural products like those from vegetable oils used in bread.

The Allergens (if any) are highlighted in the list of ingredients, usually in bold or italics or underlined.

Nutritional Labelling is required on all foods by law unless you’re a very small producer and only selling small quantities locally (i.e., within a 100km radius).

The nutrition panel has to show:
(a) The energy value (in KJ or kcal), and
(b) The quantities of fat (including saturates), carbohydrate (including sugars), protein and salt – in that order!

The food producer can also choose to give the amount of one or more of the following if they wish to: (a) Monounsaturates, (b) Polyunsaturates, (c) Polyols,
(d) Starch,(e) Fibre, (f) Any of the vitamins or minerals.

The Nutrients must be declared per 100g or per 100ml:

Mandatory Information / 100g or ml
Supplementary Information
(if desired)
Energy (kJ / kcal)
of which Saturates
of which Monounsaturates
of which Polyunsaturates
of which Sugars
of which polyols
of which starch
Vitamins & Minerals (% RI)
All of these must be listed on the label
The producer MAY include all of these if they should wish to
(either all or none)

Some food labels also include an additional column to show the Nutrition information per portion. For example, per bag, per slice, per sandwich. This is useful for the consumer who may find it tricky to work it out for themselves, but it’s not a legal requirement.
Front of pack labelling is also voluntary – the pack can show the Energy on its own or the Energy, fat, saturates, sugar and salt (all of these).

The terms “Best Before” and “Use By” dates often cause confusion. It’s really important to note that these terms are not interchangeable! “Best Before” generally applies to foods that have a long shelf life and “Use By" applies to perishable foods or foods that, if you eat them after that date, might cause food poisoning. Never take chances with "Use By" dates! Safefood has a great phrase - Best Before is a guideline, Use By is a deadline!

For more information about labelling, check out https://www.fsai.ie/legislation/food_legislation/food_information_fic/general_fic_provisions.html

For more information about allergens: https://www.fsai.ie/legislation/food_legislation/food_information/14_allergens.html

Oonagh Monahan is a Chartered Food Scientist, a Fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (UK) and the Institute of Food Science and Technology of Ireland (IFSTI).
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