Current EU nutrition information

Legislation on nutrition labelling was developed as a means of providing consumers with information about the nutrient content of the foods they were choosing in a standardised format recognisable across the European Community, thereby also promoting the freedom of movement of goods in the Single Market.

An essential part of the philosophy behind the Nutrition Labelling Directive, the principal EU legislative instrument in this area,1 was the growing recognition of the link between diet and health and the need to encourage consumers to make an informed choice about the foods they consume. It was considered that knowledge of the basic principles of nutrition and the provision of nutrition labelling would contribute significantly in this and act as a tool in the nutrition education of the public. To this end, it was deemed that the information provided should be simple and easily understood, with a standardised format that would allow comparison of one product with another. This means that the dual principles underlying EU legislation on nutrition labelling are consumer information and education and the removal of technical barriers to trade.

As usual in the development of harmonised legislation, one of the driving forces was the divergence in national legislation that risked causing reciprocal barriers to trade after completion of the Single Market on 31 December 1992. In the UK there was no specific legislation on nutrition information, but the Food Advisory Committee (FAC) had issued guidelines on nutrition labelling, which had been widely adopted by the industry. The FAC was abolished in December 2001 because its functions have now been taken over by the Board of the Food Standards Agency, but its advice at the time in question carried considerable weight. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) indicated its intention to introduce national legislation on the compulsory indication of fat content. This spurred the European Commission into pushing its own proposals forward, on the basis that the UK's freedom to legislate in this area was constrained by its Community obligations under the Food Labelling Directive, 79/112/EEC (updated and consolidated in 2000 as Directive 2000/13/EC).

Work on European harmonisation began in 1988, when the Commission put forward two linked proposals, one on compulsory nutrition labelling and the other

1 Official Journal of the European Communities, No. L 276/40-44, 6.10.90

setting out what that labelling should be. The Directive eventually adopted in 1990, Directive 90/496/EEC on nutrition labelling for foodstuffs, did not require compulsory labelling, except where a claim is made, and focused more on the nature and format of the labelling, about which it goes into great detail.

Interestingly, for a piece of legislation for which one of the primary aims is the provision of information regarded as being of benefit to the consumer, it is a highly technical Directive, unlikely to be understood by anyone without some knowledge of food science or food legislation, and ideally both. To understand and use it requires detailed analysis. The following are its main provisions.

6.2.1 Provisions of the current legislation: format

The provision of nutrition labelling is voluntary, unless a nutrition claim is made, e.g. 'reduced fat', 'high fibre', 'low sodium'. If nutrition information is given, it must be in one of two formats:

either • Group 1 information: energy, protein, carbohydrate and fat (in that order).

or • Group 2 information: energy, protein, carbohydrate, sugars, fat, saturates, fibre and sodium (in that order).

These formats are commonly referred to as 'The Big 4' and 'The Big 4 plus Little 4'. Quantities must be given per 100g or 100ml of the food or drink, or per 100g/100ml and per serving. The Directive requires that the information be given in one place, in tabular format, with the numbers aligned if space permits.

Declarations may also be made in respect of vitamins and minerals, provided they are listed in the Annex of the Directive and are present in 'significant amounts', currently defined as 15% of the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA), supplied per 100 g or 100 ml of the food, or per package if the package contains only a single portion. The vitamins and minerals currently listed and their RDAs are:

Vitamin A (mg)


Vitamin B^ (mg)


Vitamin D (mg)


Biotin (mg)


Vitamin E (mg)


Pantothenic acid (mg)


Vitamin C (mg)


Calcium (mg)


Thiamin (mg)


Phosphorus (mg)


Riboflavin (mg)


Iron (mg)


Niacin (mg)


Magnesium (mg)


Vitamin B6 (mg)


Zinc (mg)


Folacin (mg)


Iodine (mg)


A declaration may also be given in respect of one or more of the following:

  • starch
  • polyols
  • mono-unsaturates
  • polyunsaturates
  • cholesterol but if a declaration is made in respect of polyunsaturates, mono-unsaturates or cholesterol, the amount of saturates must also be given.

6.2.2 Calculation of energy value

For the purpose of calculating the energy value for these nutrients, the Directive specifies the values on which they are to be calculated by means of the following conversion factors:

carbohydrate (except polyols)


- 17kJ/g


2.4kcal/g -

- 10kJ/g



- 17kJ/g



- 37kJ/g

alcohol (ethanol)


- 29kJ/g

organic acid

3 kcal/g

- 13kJ/g

6.2.3 Definitions

The Directive, like most pieces of legislation, must specify to what it refers so that all the nutrients are defined scientifically. So, for example, the Directive states that:

'protein' means the protein content calculated by using the formula: protein = total Kjeldahl nitrogen x 6.25

'saturates' means fatty acids without a double bond

This exemplifies the earlier comment that it is a Directive written for the food scientist rather than for the average consumer.

The Directive also defines 'average value'. This is necessary because the composition of foods is subject to natural variation due, for example, to variations in cultivar, weather, growing location, conditions and practices (crops) and in breed, seasonality, rearing conditions and practices (animal-derived materials). The Directive therefore states that: 'average value' means the value which best represents the amount of the nutrient which a given food contains, and reflects allowances for seasonal variability, patterns of consumption and other factors which may cause the actual value to vary.'

6.2.4 Declared values

These are the average values of the nutrients, as defined above, based on:

1 The manufacturer's analysis of the food.

2 A calculation from the known or actual average values of the ingredients used.

3 A calculation from generally established and accepted data.

The amounts declared must be for the food as sold. However, where appropriate they may relate to the foodstuff after preparation, provided that sufficiently detailed instructions for preparation are given and the information relates to the food as prepared for consumption.

The Directive provides for the use of the Standing Committee procedure in the event of discrepancies being found between the declared values and those established during the course of official analysis. The Standing Committee is convened from experts from all Member States who will adjudicate on the matter(s) placed before them. In the UK, the term 'typical' is preferred to 'average' and is more generally used as a more representative indication of value than the average.

6.2.5 Nutrition claims

As stated earlier, the provision of nutrition information is voluntary unless a claim is made. So, for example, if a claim is made that a product is 'low in fat', at least Group 1 information must be given. Very often the full Group 2 information is given, but this would only be compulsory if the claim were for one of the 'Little 4' nutrients, i.e. 'saturated fat' rather than 'fat'. The Directive defines as a nutrition claim:

  • any representation and any advertising message which states, suggests or implies that a foodstuff has particular nutrition properties due to the energy (calorific value) it
  • provides,
  • provides at a reduced or increased rate or
  • does not provide and/or due to the nutrients it
  • contains,
  • contains in reduced or increased proportions or
  • does not contain.'

Only generic advertising is excluded from this, so if a producer decided to launch a campaign to persuade people to eat more fresh green vegetables and claimed that green vegetables are low in fat, he would not have to include the nutrition information alongside his images of leafy greens.

6.2.6 Timescale

The Directive came into force in September 1990 and required that trade in products complying with the Directive be permitted by 1 April 1992 and that products not complying with the Directive be prohibited with effect from 1 October 1993. The Directive also required that, eight years from its notification, the Commission would submit to the European Parliament and the Council a report on the application of the Directive and any appropriate proposals for amendment. This review, due in autumn 1998, has not yet taken place at the time of writing and will be discussed further in sections 6.5 and 6.6.

148 The nutrition handbook for food processors 6.2.7 Implementation

Most legislation is only as good as its implementation and enforcement and the application of these procedures has been variable in the case of the Nutrition Labelling Directive. Some Member States were tardy in including it in their national legislation and some, the UK being a prime example, did it so clumsily that it would have been a deterrent to use had the Directive itself not already been familiar to most UK food and drink manufacturers and its provisions already widely used on a voluntary basis. Reports from elsewhere in Europe suggest that national implementing rules, which invariably entail a degree of interpretation, have indeed been a deterring factor and have acted as a disincentive in providing nutrition information voluntarily. The UK's record of some 80% of manufactured food and drink products voluntarily carrying nutrition information remains a matter of surprise, admiration and consternation in other Member States.

UK implementation of the Nutrition Labelling Directive is via the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 (as amended). These are complex Regulations covering all the essentials of food labelling from batch marking to medicinal claims. Implementation of the Nutrition Labelling Directive, which took place in 1994, carried with it the usual burden of complexity that comes with turning the positive approach of EU legislation (you are not allowed to do it unless the Directive says so) into the negative style of UK Regulations (you can do what you like unless the Regulations state that 'No person shall...'). The transposition of Article 4.1 of Directive 90/496/EEC, which states simply that 'Where nutrition labelling is provided, the information to be given shall consist of either group 1 or group 2 in the following order:

Group 1

  • a) energy value;
  • b) the amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Group 2
  • a) energy value;
  • b) the amounts of protein, carbohydrate, sugars, fat, saturates, fibre and sodium.'

became in Schedule 6A Part I of The Food Labelling (Amendment) Regulations 1994 a half page single table listing both Group 1 and Group 2 nutrients, plus all the additional nutrients allowed to be mentioned, such as polyols under carbohydrates and polyunsaturates under fats, with a complex set of cross references to Part II of the Schedule and subsequent paragraphs of Part I to explain the two separate groups and how they should be set out. It is no wonder that MAFF needed to issue explanatory guidance notes to accompany the amendment to the Regulations.2

2 MAFF Guidance Notes on Nutrition Labelling, issued 18 March 1994

6.2.8 General requirements

It is important that nutrition information is correct. Not only is it a legal requirement that any labelling information must be accurate and not misleading, but periodically consumer organisations run checks on the values given for the various nutrients and publicise embarrassing inaccuracies. The manufacturer also has an obligation to ensure that the label is understandable in the market(s) in which the product is sold. However, this requirement has not yet been extended to ensure that the consumer understands the nutrition information per se, only the language in which it is provided. Regrettably, it cannot be assumed that consumers throughout the EU understand the nutrition information if given in the language of the country of manufacture even though it is set out in a recognised format and order of nutrients. On the other hand, consumers may well express interest in the nutritional attributes of the product, whether or not nutrition information is provided. Many manufacturers and retailers produce leaflets to help explain nutrition labelling and how it can help them to choose a balanced diet, or refer their customers to some of the organisations and resources referred to in section 6.7.

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