Home > Food & Water > Pollution: Understanding Food Labels

Pollution: Understanding Food Labels

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 11 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Food Product Label Food Labels Packaging

How much salt? Wrong kind of fat? Too high in sugar? Is it organic? We’ve all been there – staring at a food carton in the supermarket aisle, trying to work out what’s good for us, what might be alright if we’re in a hurry and what’s a complete no-no. And that’s just working out what we should be putting into our bodies; working out whether the product was manufactured sustainably, or if we can dispose of the packaging in an environmentally-friendly way presents a whole set of further questions.

Providing Information for the Consumer

Food manufacturers are required by law to label the ingredients used and to provide certain nutritional information on the packaging. They are also encouraged as best practise, to state the provenance of the product and whether the packaging is recyclable. Given that most companies will also wish to include their own attention-grabbing graphics, identifiable images and enticements to buy, this has led to a huge amount of information crammed onto every available surface of the product and left the consumer confused.

So, how do we work our way to understanding food labels?

Well, the government is committed to helping the general public understand food labels better and therefore make informed choices about the products we by. They also work to ensure that suppliers adhere to strict labelling guidelines where they are determined by law, and to moving towards clearer labelling where confusion still exists or the public is being misled.


Current legislation for food labels is set by the Food Standards Agency which regulates the type of information printed on the packaging and ensures false claims are not made. The Agency is also responsible for policing what goes into the foodstuff itself and for regulation concerning whether the product might become contaminated by anything contained in the packaging.

The Traffic Light System

One of the labelling schemes which the FSA has developed is that of the Traffic Light system. This is a simple set of markers which indicate low (‘good’), medium (’OK’) or high (‘bad’) levels of sugar, fats and salt in any given food product – the three ingredients most commonly linked with bad health. As the name of the scheme implies, green denotes ‘go’, orange ‘possible’, and red ‘stop’.

The system has been designed to be easily seen and understood by the consumer and the number of companies adopting them is growing.

The Red Tractor

Another successful scheme to help our understanding of food labels is that of the Red Tractor – again developed and implemented by the Food Standards Agency.

The red and blue logo of a tractor on packaging means that the company which produced the food was independently assessed to determine that acceptable standards of animal welfare, safety and/or environmental conditions were met. Once accredited, the manufacturers earn the right to include the red tractor symbol on their products.

The scheme is predominantly administered by Assured Food Standards, a voluntary overseeing body made up of a conglomerate of food producers who sign up for the assurance schemes and for whom guidance notes are provided by the FSA.

Pure, Fresh, Natural

In contrast to such effective labelling mechanisms is the inadequate consumer guidance over common expressions food producers use to try to sell their products. Words such as ‘traditional’, ‘farmhouse’, ‘premium’, ‘pure’, ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ all conjure up impressions of health, goodness and purity – and so they’re designed to. Nevertheless, research carried out by the Food Standards Agency in 2002 found such terminology to be often misleading and sometimes untrue. The Agency therefore set tighter rules for eight such words (including ‘pure’, ‘fresh’, and ‘natural’) and is currently investigating other similar and commonly used terms.

Further Information

There is a lot of help on hand to aid our understanding of food and packaging labels and there is recognition by both the government and the food industry that more needs to be done to simplify and streamline labelling for the future.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Why not be the first to leave a comment for discussion, ask for advice or share your story...

If you'd like to ask a question one of our experts (workload permitting) or a helpful reader hopefully can help you... We also love comments and interesting stories

(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
Enter word:
Latest Comments
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    I ordered the laminate flooring from UK Flooring Direct Limited online and fitted in March 2018.After that i noticed very…
    29 November 2018
  • Lenard
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    The person that resides in the apartment above my apartment about 2 weeks ago seems to be making something that has caused…
    24 November 2018
  • J M
    Re: Negative Effects of Sky Glow
    Honestly, this is extremely helpful to know especially because so many people in the world don’t pay attention to these things…
    26 October 2018
  • SeaSiderSeth
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    Hello. I'm the premises manager of a tv company in Clapham and recently Thames Water built 4 or 5 large storm drains all…
    15 October 2018
  • tolu
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    Hello i have a neighbor who lives behind my daughter and me he have Hogs there and this mail is excruciating it makes you…
    19 September 2018
  • Ben
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    Hello, we are in a new build semi detached house. We moved in at the same time as our neighbours last November. However over…
    8 September 2018
  • PollutionIssues
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    Lou - Your Question:What can I do about local farmer spreading putrid slurry/ fertiliser over fields near me? On a warm…
    14 August 2018
  • puppy
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    There’s a house being built across the field to our house. There is a constant smell of diesel which is making me and my…
    6 August 2018
  • Lou
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    What can I do about local farmer spreading putrid slurry/ fertiliser over fields near me? On a warm summer’s evening the…
    1 August 2018
  • savita sharma
    Re: Complaining About Smell Pollution
    Hi twice or thrice a week my neighbour do water intake in thire silver that produce horrible smell from his house its…
    27 July 2018