Food packaging: the truth behind the jargon

Home | Blog | Food packaging: the truth behind the jargon



Food labels are designed to entice the eye. 

Whether it’s low sodium crisps or free-range eggs, companies in the food industry are specialists when it comes to convincing consumers to buy a product that is perceived to be healthy, low in calories or better for animal welfare and the environment. 

Unfortunately, a lot of what you see and read on the supermarket shelves is not an accurate representation of the produce themselves. 

So how can you spot the good from the bad and what do these labels really mean? 


What is food packaging required to show? 

According to government regulations, food packaging has to present the following information: 

  • The name of the food
  • A ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date
  • Any necessary warnings
  • Net quantity information
  • A list of ingredients (if there is more than one)
  • The country or place of origin, if required
  • The lot number or use-by date
  • Any special storage conditions
  • Instructions for use or cooking, if necessary

The country of origin must also appear on the packaging of any fish or shellfish, beef, veal, lamb, mutton, pork, goat, poultry, honey, olive oil, wine or fruits and vegetables. 


How is colour used in food packaging?  

Our reasoning for buying the food we do is in part founded upon the visual cues we subconsciously pick up from the packaging. 

Food marketing executive, Amy Goldsmith revealed that this is due to the way in which colours communicate ideas to us about what we eat. 

Green is unsurprisingly associated with health, vegetarianism and an awareness of the environment whilst shades of black and gold are synonymous with luxury and indulgence. 

The saturation levels of packaging have also been shown to have an impact on our perceptions of the health and taste of our food. 

In one study, researchers discovered that participants generally associated vivid, colour-saturated packaging with fresher food that was both healthier and tastier. 

Intrigued? Why not take a look inside your cupboard and see which colours jump out at you – was it the colours or the product itself that convinced you to buy it?


How are words manipulated in food labels? 

Words are the second weapon which marketers and manufacturers use to make products more attractive to consumers.

“Food manufacturers use every possible word they can to magnify the desirability of a product”, explained Harvard professor Walter Willett, M.D.

Buzzwords such as ‘reduced fat’, ‘low salt’ and ‘free from’ dominate the packaging world despite the addition of more sugar or unhealthy substitutes to make up for the lost flavour. 

According to the national charity, Diabetes UK, products which state they have ‘no added sugar’ can still contain natural sugars and sugar-free products will likely have more fats added to replace the missing sweeteners (and vice versa). 

Another frequently used term that hides the processed nature of many vegan and vegetarian products is the phrase ‘plant-based’. 

On the surface, it denotes something inherently healthy but underneath those mushroom burgers or vegan cookies hides salts, sugars and artificial flavours designed to recreate the real deal.  

Through their sometimes ultra-processed journey to arrive on the shelves, plant-based products don’t originate from the most environmentally-friendly, animal-loving place you’d expect from their exterior. 


What does ‘free-range’ really mean? 

Sadly, the image of fluffy, happy chickens roaming across a corn-strewn meadow are far from the reality of even the best-kept, ‘free-range’ hens. 

In the UK, the term ‘free-range’ is given to a flock of 16,000 or less chickens that are let outside at least once every 12 weeks. 

Immediately the loophole in this regulation is clear with farmers able to keep their chickens inside for extended periods as long as they conform to this rule. 

With the recent escalation of avian flu outbreaks, indoor periods have been extended to cut down cases despite livestock becoming more at risk of suffering severe feather loss, stress-induced cannibalism and death from their indoor confinement. 

Speaking to the Guardian, the chief policy adviser for Compassion in World Farming, Peter Stevenson said: “if a free-range chicken has never been allowed outdoors in its life that should be made clear to consumers.”

Buying your eggs from local chicken-owners or buying organic, well-sourced eggs are good alternatives to supermarket offerings. 


Tips to avoid falling for packaging hacks 

  1. Buy organic and whole food products 
  2. Eat more fresh, natural produce 
  3. Check the full ingredient lists on the back of packaging 
  4. Look at the fat, salt and sugar content of foods which display phrases like low, free-from, fat-free or reduced