Legal Changes to Food Labels in Europe

Published on

This is an article I wrote for NHD Magazine April 2016 issue, I hope you enjoy it (a PDF of this article is available to download at the bottom of the article).

Food labels are our main means of understanding what our food actually contains; which is really important in enabling us to make more informed, and potentially healthier, consumer choices.

In order to improve the standard of food labelling consistently across Europe, the EU Provision of Food Information for Consumers Regulation1 was adopted in 2011, with most of these legal requirements becoming effective on the 13th of December 2014. This article examines the implication of this Regulation; and in particular the ‘nutritional declaration’ aspect which will become mandatory for the majority of food labels from the 13th of December 2016.


This Regulation sets out 3 fundamental requirements for food labelling1:

  1. Food information shall not be misleading
  2. Food information shall be accurate, clear and easy to understand
  3. Food information shall not suggest that the food prevents, treats or cures a human disease


Mandatory information for food labels1:

  • The name of the food
  • The list of ingredients (generally listed in descending order of weight)
  • Allergy information
  • The quantity of certain ingredients or categories of ingredients
  • The net quantity of the food
  • The ‘best before’ date or the ‘use by’ date
  • Any special storage conditions and/or conditions of use
  • The name or business name and address of the food business operator
  • The country of origin or ‘place of provenance’ (i.e. when production involves more than one country this is the country where the primary ingredient comes from or where the product underwent it’s last important stage of manufacturing)
  • Instructions for use (where appropriate)
  • The alcoholic strength documented as “alcohol” or “alc” followed by the “% vol” (where beverages contain more than 1.2 % by volume of alcohol)
  • A nutrition declaration

Note: Exemptions apply to specific types of glass bottles and containers where the largest surface area is <10cm2; however the list of ingredients must be available via other means or upon request.  Additional mandatory labelling requirements exist related to products such as: frozen meat or fish, products containing sweeteners, products with a high caffeine content, dried milk products, products in vending machines and alcoholic drinks.


Picture reference: Food Standards Agency 2014


Allergen Labelling

Since the 13th of December 2014, all products which contain any of the allergenic substances listed below are legally required to clearly specify these in the ingredients list and to highlight these through a typeset distinguished by font, style or colour1.

In cases where there is no ingredients list included, the label must state ‘contains’ followed by the allergens in question; unless the name of the product contains the allergen.

  • Cereals containing gluten – wheat, oats, barley, rye, oats, spelt, kamut or their hybridised strains
  • Crustaceans
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans
  • Milk
  • Nuts – almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia nuts and Queensland nuts.
  • Celery
  • Mustard
  • Sesame seeds
  • Sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre
  • Lupin
  • Molluscs


Picture source: BRC Guidance on Allergen Labelling and the Requirements in Regulation 1169/2011 

Mandatory Nutritional Declaration

From the 13th of December 2016 a “nutrition declaration” (also referred to as “back of pack” nutritional information) must be present on all food labels1.

Prior to this date (i.e. between the 13th of December 2011 and 12th of December 2016) companies may include a voluntary nutritional declaration which must also comply with the regulation.

Mandatory nutritional declaration1:

(a) The energy value declared in both kJ and kcal

(b) The amounts of fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt declared in grams (although it may be stated if the salt content is due to naturally occurring sodium present in the product)

The nutritional content values are legally required to be given per 100g or 100ml; but in addition to this the nutritional content may also be given in one of the following ways:

  • Per portion or per consumption unit
  • As a percentage per 100g or 100ml (or per portion or consumption unit) in relation to the ‘reference intake of an average adult (8400 kJ/ 2000kcal)’ if this is specifically stated (note: the term “Reference Intake” (RI) is to replace “Guideline Daily Amounts” (GDAs)2).


Picture source: “toffee popcorn”


Food manufacturers may also decide to include some or all of these optional additions to the “back of pack” nutritional declaration:

(a) mono-unsaturates;

(b) polyunsaturates;

(c) polyols;

(d) starch;

(e) fibre;

(f) Specific vitamins or minerals when present in ‘significant amounts’ based on Nutrient Reference Values (NRVs)


This is the set order of nutrients for the mandatory nutritional declaration; including the optional additional nutrients and the specified units of measurement:


Picture source: DEFRA 2013 “The Food Information Regulations” 


Exemptions from the mandatory nutritional declaration1:

  1. Alcoholic drinks containing >1.2% alcohol strength (where it is chosen to include a nutritional declaration it may be limited to the energy value or the energy value with the amounts of fat, saturates, sugars, and salt. Or these values may be given on a “per portion/per consumption” unit basis only rather than per 100g or per 100ml.
  2. Unprocessed products made of a single ingredient; or where the only processing has been maturing that ingredient
  3. Bottled water including those where the only added ingredients are flavourings and/or carbon dioxide
  4. Herbs/spices
  5. Salt/salt substitutes
  6. Table top sweeteners
  7. Certain coffee and chicory extracts, whole or milled coffee beans (including decaffeinated coffee beans)
  8. Herbal and fruit infusions, tea, decaffeinated tea
  9. Fermented vinegars/vinegar substitutes
  10. Flavourings, food additives, processing aids, food enzymes
  11. Gelatine, jam setting compounds
  12. Yeast
  13. Chewing-gums
  14. Food labels where the largest surface area is < 25cm2
  15. Food supplied in small quantities to local retailers directly from the manufacturer (e.g. handcrafted food)


‘Principle Field of Vision’ or ‘Front of Package’ Labelling

This refers to all surfaces that can be read from one specific viewing point; but for ease I will refer to this as ‘front of pack’ (FoP) labelling.

Roughly 80% of processed foods contain some form of FoP labelling3.

As long as the food label contains the mandatory nutrition declaration (i.e. the ‘back of pack’ label), the following information can be repeated on the FoP on a voluntary basis1:

(a) The energy value

(b) Or the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, sugars, and salt. In this case, the values given for the nutrients except for energy may be given per portion or per consumption unit only. However, the energy content must be provided per 100g or 100ml as well as per portion or per consumption unit.


Picture source: Guide to creating a front of pack (FoP) nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets


Standardisation of Front of Pack Labelling

Despite the finding from the Food Standard Authority in 2009 that “standardising to just one label format would enhance use and comprehension of front of package labels”4, the new nutritional declaration guidelines don’t specify the exact format which should be used for voluntary FoP labelling.

Therefore, in June 2013 as a result of a joint consultation held in January 2013 which included input from the main food production stakeholders in the UK3, a guide was produced outlining the information which should be included on a FoP label2:

  • The energy value in kJ and kcal per 100g/100ml and in a specified portion of the product
  • The amounts of: fat, saturated fat, total sugars and salt provided in grams in relation to a specified portion of the product
  • Portion size expressed in a way which is easily recognisable by, and useful to the consumer. E.g. ¼ of a pie or 1 burger.
  • % Reference Intake (RI) based on the amount of each nutrient and energy value in a portion of the food
  • Colour coding of the nutrient content of the food (with an option to include the descriptors ‘High’, ‘Medium’ or ‘Low’ along with the respective colours red, amber or green)


Picture source: Heart Research UK


How Useful Do Consumers Find Front Food Labels?

In 2009 the Food Standards Agency released a report on the “Comprehension and Use of UK Nutrition Signpost Labelling Schemes”4. This included a combination of qualitative research (accompanied shops and shopping bag audits) and quantitative research (surveys and interviews, whereby  the main survey consisted of 2932 consumers), which found that a food label which combined text (i.e. ’high’, ’medium’ and ’low’), traffic light colours and %RI was the most user friendly and best liked labelling scheme.

This study also indicated that older adults (i.e. those over 65), people with lower levels of education, those from a lower social demographic and certain minority ethnic groups were more likely to have difficulty interpreting FoP labels.

Consumers who were shopping for children, those with a medical condition (or a family history of a medical condition) or those trying to lose weight were found to be more likely to read FoP labels. The main medical conditions which were identified as having an effect on use of FoP labels were: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia and coeliac disease. It was found that each group tended to look at the most relevant nutrients related to their condition; e.g. consumers with diabetes were most likely to check the sugar content.


Health Claims on Food Labels

Although the regulation states that “Food information shall not suggest that the food prevents, treats or cures a human disease”, there are some legal exemptions which exist related to foods with particular nutritional uses, such as infant formula. However, if a food supplement claims to have a medicinal effect it must be licensed under medicines legislation (MHRA)5.

Specific nutritional claims which are permitted for use with food products must comply with EU regulations No 1924/20066 and No 1047/20127.

For example, a food can claim to be ’low fat’ if it contains no more than 3g of fat per 100g for solids or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquid; or a food can be marketed as ’high fibre’ if it contains  at least 6g of fibre per 100g or at least 3g of fibre per 100kcal6,7. These Regulations also set the criteria for the reference ranges used for the traffic light labelling scheme.


Picture source: BHF Food Label Decoder


Key Points about changes to food labels:

  • The ’EU Provision of Food Information for Consumers Regulation’ sets out the legal requirements which food manufacturers must abide by in relation to food labelling.
  • This includes specific guidance on nutritional factors such as allergen information; and from the 13th of December 2016 it will be mandatory for the majority of food labels to include a specific ’nutritional declaration’ which includes: the energy content declared in both kJ and kcal and the amounts of fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt declared per 100g or per 100ml.
  • As an addition to this mandatory nutritional declaration, food products may also contain a FoP label which includes: the energy value in kJ and kcal per 100g or 100ml and in a specified portion of the product; the amounts of fat, saturated fat, total sugars and salt in relation to a specific portion of the product, the % RI of each nutrient and energy value per portion of the product, and traffic light colour coding.
  • The forthcoming nutritional declaration requirements will hopefully improve the quality, consistency and clarity of food labels to help our patients and the general public make more informed food choices.



  1. Regulation (EU) 1169/2011 (
  2. Guide to creating a FoP nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets (
  3. FoP Nutrition Labelling: Joint Response to Consultation (
  4. Comprehension and use of UK nutrition signpost labelling schemes (
  5. Summary information on legislation relating to the sale of food supplements (
  6. Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006 (
  7. Regulation (EU) No 1047/2012 (
  8. Food Labelling in the UK: A Guide to the Legal Requirements (


Maeve has been consulting on The Food Medic Educational Hub for 12 months now and has been a huge asset to the team. Her ability to translate some very nuanced topics in nutrition into easy-to-follow, informative articles and infographics is really admirable.

Dr Hazel Wallace

Founder of The Food Medic

Maeve is incredibly talented at sharing scientific information in an easy to understand way. The content she shares with us is always really interesting, clear, and of very high quality. She’s one of our favourite writers to work with!

Aisling Moran

Senior UX Writer at Thriva Health

Maeve has written extensively for NHD magazine over the last few years, producing a wealth of dietetic and nutritional articles. Always evidence based and factual, Maeve creates material that is relevant and very readable. She provides high quality work with a professional and friendly approach. Maeve is a beacon of high quality knowledge and work within the nutrition writing community; and someone NHD magazine is proud to work with.

Emma Coates

Editor of Network Health Digest

Support Dietetically Speaking

More from Dietetically Speaking

Eating Well on a Budget

Eating Well on a Budget

This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of NHD magazine. Opinions can be divided about whether it is …
Beetroot Chilli

Beetroot Chilli

This recipe is extreme quick to make and also very tasty! Ingredients (serves 3-4) 400g tin of Mexican bean mix400g tin of …
Fad Diets — What’s the Harm?

Fad Diets — What’s the Harm?

This article was first published in January 2020 Thriva Newspaper. As we reflect on the past year and think about our future goals, …
Beetroot Soup Recipe

Beetroot Soup Recipe

This is a delicious and warming soup, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! This soup also …
How Can Vegans Meet Their Requirement for Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

How Can Vegans Meet Their Requirement for Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

My intern Zachary Wenger has previously written about whether protein, certain vitamins or minerals are of concern for those adopting …
Are Vegan Diets Low in Certain Minerals?

Are Vegan Diets Low in Certain Minerals?

My wonderful intern Zachary Wenger has previously written about whether protein or certain vitamins are nutrients of concern for vegans. …
Gluten 101

Gluten 101

Thank you to Student Dietitian Marcos Gregoriou for writing this blog post about gluten, the gluten-free diet and the risks …
Simple Shakshuka Recipe

Simple Shakshuka Recipe

This is such a handy and delicious brunch option which only takes about 20 minutes to make. I used frozen veg …
IBS & The Low FODMAP Diet

IBS & The Low FODMAP Diet

This article was first published in October 2019 Thriva Newspaper. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder which occurs when a …
The Lectin-Free Diet

The Lectin-Free Diet

This article was first published in the November 2019 edition of NHD magazine. What is the Lectin-free Diet?  This diet involves heavily …
Vitamins for Vegans

Vitamins for Vegans

This article was written by Zachary Wenger, who is a dietetic student and a vegan. As a follow-up to our previous …
Daal Recipe

Daal Recipe

This recipe was created by my partner Anthony O'Neill — it is DAAL-icious so I hope you enjoy it as …