/ Food & Drink

We’re all being misled by food labels

Woman shopping for juice

Ok, so saying that not everything you read on food packaging is what it seems is a bit like stating Britain’s weather is changeable. But do you actually know what all the food jargon and weasel words mean?

Do you know the difference between ‘flavour’ and ‘flavoured’, or ‘juice’ and ‘juice drink’? And what about ‘light’ and ‘diet’, or ‘pure’, ‘natural’ and ‘free range’?

Are any of these terms regulated by law – and if so what do they mean?

Hidden horrors in food

When we took a closer look at packaging we found a few hidden horrors, like a popular fruit juice described as containing natural fruit and spring water. Well, it does, but it also contains up to your entire Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of sugar in a one-litre bottle.

Fair enough, you might think, although there’s no way for consumers to see this, because sugar isn’t detailed in the nutritional information.

Or take a strawberry ‘flavour’ yoghurt drink. Does it have to contain strawberries? No, just flavourings – but if it was strawberry ‘flavoured’ it would.

Another of my favourites is the ‘juice drink’, which doesn’t mean much at all. ‘Juice’ has to be, well, juice, but we found a ‘juice drink’ with ‘real fruit’ that contains less fruit than sugar – just 5% from concentrate.

Navigating the maze of mixed meanings

Seemingly ‘healthy’ products can also be full of surprises too. The term ‘diet’ doesn’t actually have to mean anything, but ‘light’ or ‘reduced in’ does. They indicate that a product is at least 30% lower in one of its main nutritional components – like fat or sugar – but you can still find a ‘light’ biscuit with 30% reduced fat that has more sugar than the normal version.

Given all these mixed meanings it’s important that consumers know what they’re getting and that guidance is tightened up. This, and other labelling issues, now falls to Defra following the shake up of the Food Standards Agency.

Admittedly, they’ve got plenty on their plate, but it’s key they remain consumer focussed, and clarifying this kind of food jargon will show they’re exactly that.

But at the end of the day these manufacturers aren’t, for the most part, doing anything illegal. The guidance on these issues is complicated stuff, and by its very nature has to allow room to manoeuvre, so it’s ultimately up to consumers not to take everything at face value.

So have you come across any creative terminology on food packaging? We’re always on the look out, so tell us below and we might even feature them in the magazine.


In all honesty – I no longer buy “processed” food – except Sainsburys “Mixed Veg in water” which contains no additives, and 2% fat skimmed milk

I found too many processed foods not clear enough – and I would love all food used the same terminology so they could be directly compared – Until they do – I’ll buy “natural”

pickle says:
27 August 2010

I too try to buy non-processed foods, and prefer to buy basic foods and cook/process them myself. Things like sausages and processed meats are out. But I do go for Birds Eye fish fingers!

Julian Smith says:
17 September 2010

My favourite is labelling salt as “Sodium” instead of it’s full formula, thus enabling manufacturers to halve the weight of salt listed on the label. It’s as dishonest as listing water as “H” instead of H20.

SteveH says:
13 February 2011

It isn’t a matter of labelling salt as sodium. All foods contain a wide range of sodium salts, and it is impossible to separate out the sodium chloride (common table salt) from the others when analyzing the composition of the food, because sodium salts are ionized when they are in solution. There are also other chlorides present. Some of the salts found in food are naturally-occurring and some are added by human beings.
Sodium chloride is the most common salt found in most foods, because it is added by human beings.
A manufacturer could state how much salt had been _added_ to food, but this wouldn’t tell you how much was in it, because there is always some that occurs naturally. It is possible to _measure_ how much sodium is in a sample of food, but it is only possible to _infer_ how much sodium chloride is in the food by assuming that a certain proportion of it is present as sodium chloride.
It _would_ be dishonest to list hydrogen content, but you certainly couldn’t use it to infer the amount of water because it is present in so many other (naturally-occurring) components of the food.

Julian makes a very good point. In fact, sodium chloriide (common salt) contains about 39% sodium, so having one product labelled with salt content and another labelled with sodium content is going to confuse most consumers. In some cases this will be intentional, but declaring the sodium content is far more useful. It is the amount of sodium in food we eat that needs to be controlled to help avoid high blood pressure and other health problems. If it was a requirement to label all food with the typical sodium content then the consumer could make an informed choice.

SteveH points out that food contains sodium in addition to that added to it. This is very important, and what matters is the total amount. That is what should be on the label.

Thus we need all food suppliers to declare the total amount of sodium. The amount of added sodium or salt is not really important.

To clarify, I mean that sodium chloride contains about 39% sodium by weight.

Nick – Thanks for giving these examples. Those of us who read Which? magazine regularly will be familiar with the need to analyse what is on the label, but this could help anyone looking at this website.

Many years ago, I was disgusted to find out that most cooked ham is mechanically recovered and the bits are stuck together to make something that can be cut into slices. I wonder how many consumers appreciate why it is labelled “formed”. Perhaps the air holes in the cheapest versions of cooked ham are a bit of a give away that something is not quite right.

maggy mcelroy says:
16 March 2012

I bought a pack of Tiger Prawns today in Tesco. They were packed well and looked fresh. I was doing a pasta dish so wasn’t too concerned about taste. I would normally buy fish at the fishmongers but was in a hurry. The packet said they were ” Keohanes of Bantry Cork freshly caught every day. I assumed they were Irish. On the reverse side of the pack in small writing I find they came from Bangladesh. What a suprise. Oh well, I’ve learnt my lesson.

I bought Tropicana “Trop 50” labelled 50% less sugar and calories since I am diabetic. The flavour is Pomegranate and Blueberry.The ingredients are :
Apple Juice 40%
Pomegranate Juice 2%
Blueberry 2%
This is open deception and misleading. They have lost a customer.

Should have added better labelled “Apple Juice , Pomegranate and Blueberry.