Understanding Food Packaging Symbols

Understanding Food Packaging Symbols
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Understanding Food Packaging Symbols

Pick any can of beans or box of cereal off the supermarket shelf and you'll find a swathe of food information and symbols on the label. But who decides what's included on that food label and what are the legal requirements? Read on to find out more.

Introduction to Food Packaging Symbols

A woman looks at a jar of food in a supermarketA woman looks at a jar of food in a supermarket
Food labels tell customers important information about the product.

Packaging labels have to cover a lot of ground. They must include ingredient lists, nutrition, weight, country of origin, use-by-date, and allergens. Much of this information must be included in food labelling by law. So it's important to get them right.

Food packaging symbols make it easy to see key information at a glance. Many are standardised across the food industry so they're instantly recognisable, making them an efficient way to communicate with customers.

Everything from nutritional guidance to allergen warnings and recycling codes has a unique logo designed to help customers make informed choices about the products they buy.

Food Packaging Symbols and Their Meanings

Food packaging information is regulated by The FSA (Food Standards Agency). This includes nutrition and product information and how it is displayed.

The key directive from the FSA is that all labels must be clear and not misleading, and this is backed up by law. Misrepresentation as defined by the National Food Crime Unit is, "labelling a product to wrongly portray its quality, safety, origin or freshness". 

Packaging symbols are also useful for product promotion. Icons can make an eye-catching selling point. Displaying a Fair Trade or Organic symbol on the front of the wrapper is a great way to promote a positive brand message. Using the right symbol on the right product in the right market can give your product the edge over the competition. 

Bunches of bananas with organic food labelsBunches of bananas with organic food labels
The food labels on these bananas include useful information such as their country of origin, batch code, and that they're organic

Freshness symbols

Using the word "Fresh" on packaging makes customers think a product is tasty, healthy and nutritious, and although there is no set icon for "Fresh", they are often green and use leaves to highlight the link to nature.

The downside of fresh food is that it has a shorter shelf life so any fresh food must be clearly date stamped. Freshness dates are used on packaging for two reasons; safety and quality. Use By dates ensure food is safe to eat, whilst Best Before dates ensure food tastes its best.

Why are Use By Dates so important?

Use by dates are used on products that can be dangerous to eat after a certain time, this includes fresh meat, fish and chilled goods. In these cases, the date is there for food safety reasons. As fresh food spoils, there is an increased risk of harmful bacteria making food unsafe. You can't smell the bacteria that cause food poisoning, so the dates should always be followed.

It's also important to remember that use by dates are only valid if the fresh food is kept under the recommended conditions. Bacteria can breed quickly on a warm day, which is why you'll see guidance such as, "refrigerate when opened". 

Unlike fresh produce, canned goods have a long shelf life, typically 2 to 5 years. Tinned goods are usually printed with expiry dates on their base, but they can potentially still be suitable to eat for longer than that. High-acid foods such as tomatoes and soft fruits are at their best for 12 to 18 months, whilst low-acid foods such as meat and vegetables can keep for years.

Some food experts argue that canned goods can be kept indefinitely under the right conditions. This idea is backed up by studies of the food tins left in the Antarctic by the explorer Ernest Shackleton. These tins from 1907 were edible when they were found over fifty years later. A similar discovery was made by a research team in Greenland, who tucked into some 60 year old army rations. In both cases, it probably helped that the cans were stored in arctic conditions, but the humble metal cylinder's preservation capability is pretty impressive!

A close-up of a packet of Norwegian Salmon showing the food labelling.A close-up of a packet of Norwegian Salmon showing the food labelling.
Use by dates are a must for fresh produce, this label also reminds customers to keep the Salmon refrigerated.

What does Best Before mean?

Food producers want customers to eat their products when they taste good. Best Before dates allow manufacturers to encourage customers to eat their products when they look, taste and smell their best. They are commonly used for dry, frozen and tinned goods, which are still safe to eat, even past their standard shelf-life. A soft biscuit can be eaten past the best before date even if it’s not great to dunk! 

Best Before dates are often printed on the lid or closure, so customers are more likely to see them and eat the contents within the ideal time frame.

Best Before dates have arguably proved too effective because they encourage edible food to be thrown away. Food waste campaigners have encouraged their removal and the use of smell and taste tests instead to see if food is fit to eat.

A close-up of a loaf of breads best before tab. A close-up of a loaf of breads best before tab.
Best Before dates can often be found on the lid or closure so they are easy to read, just like the tab on this loaf of bread.

Recycling symbols

Recycling symbols have been included on food labels for a long time but in recent years they have been brought into the spotlight. Images of ocean reefs made of single-use plastic bottles and mountains of rubbish make it hard to ignore the environmental problems of packaging waste.

Food packaging is typically designed for single use and is often hard or impossible to recycle. As public awareness of environmental issues has grown governments have started to act. Environmental taxes, such as Plastic Packaging Tax and EPR, are designed to encourage manufacturers to change how they package food.

The market is starting to respond, and manufacturers are using more sustainable materials such as metal, card, paper and recycled plastic for their packaging. Chocolate Easter Eggs once packaged in plastic now use a simple foil wrap and cardboard box, and premium beers and beverages are switching to aluminium cans instead of plastic bottles.

This shift in consumer behaviour has seen recycling symbols move from the back to the front, as the recyclability of packaging becomes a selling point. Manufacturers are also making it easier to see what packaging is made from and whether or not it can be recycled with clearer labelling.

You can find out more about packaging recycling codes in this article.

A tin of food showing the recycling information.A tin of food showing the recycling information.
This food can includes clear recycling information.

Allergen symbols

Labelling a product correctly for allergens is a legal requirement that is also essential for consumer safety. The FSA require labelling for 14 allergens these are; celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites, and tree nuts.

Displaying icons on the front of the packaging makes it easy for people to identify allergen-free products, such as the crossed-grain gluten-free symbol.

The standardisation of allergen symbols means that they are the same whatever the brand and whatever the product. Whether on a loaf of bread or a can of beans, the gluten-free symbol will look the same, helping people safely navigate the world of food. 

The other benefit of standardising symbols is that repetition breeds familiarity. The more often people see a symbol the more they will recognise and understand what it represents. This is particularly important when a label is all that stands between a customer and an allergic reaction!

A close up of the gluten free logo on food packagingA close up of the gluten free logo on food packaging
Symbols help customers identify allergens quickly when looking at a product.

Organic and GMO Symbols

Organic produce must be grown using environmentally sustainable farming practices. DEFRA defines organic food as being grown, "without man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives". However, goods can only be labelled organic if they meet the strict regulations outlined by the government. Organic produce must;

 

  • meet organic production rules.
  • be made from at least 95% organic agricultural ingredients.
  • use only ingredients, additives and processing aids permitted within the organic regulations.
  • have the product, labels and suppliers certified by an approved UK body.

Legally "organic" food must include the control body code number and a statement of agricultural origin so it can be properly checked and traced.

On the other side of the environmental coin are genetically modified (GM) foods. In the UK foods must be labelled to indicate if they include genetically modified organisms or ingredients. Sometimes food manufacturers will highlight their product has not been genetically modified by using a GM-free symbol.

Organic and GM-free symbols encourage eco-conscious customers to buy these products, making them an important marketing tool too.

Fair trade symbols

The Fair Trade Certification Mark is one of the most recognisable food symbols. Today's version was launched by FLO in 2002, to improve awareness of the fair trade scheme and to make imports and exports easier.

The logo did its job. Today it's rare to see a bar of chocolate without the Fair Trade symbol on the front and there are now Fair Trade certification marks for a wide range of products including; coffee, bananas, sugar and even footballs!

Another logo that is becoming more common is The Rainforest Alliance's green frog. This symbol can only be used by certified companies that have met the RA's environmental and social standards for sustainability.

Fair trade chocolate barsFair trade chocolate bars
The Fair Trade Logo is commonly seen on chocolate bars.

Kosher and halal symbols

Kosher and Halal symbols help people choose products in line with their religious beliefs. There is currently no legal requirement for food and drink products to be labelled with regards to religious practices, however, this is currently under government review.

In common with all food labelling any product positively labelled as Halal or Kosher must not be misleading, and should adhere to the correct ingredient and preparation guidelines.

Nutritional symbols

The main objective of nutritional symbols is to improve public health. Without proper labelling on processed and pre-packed foods, it's hard for customers to make informed choices about what they're eating. 

This is why the FSA regulates what and how nutritional information is displayed on food packaging. Ingredients must be listed in order of weight, (unless they are a single ingredient such as fresh fruit and vegetables). The labels must also include the amount of energy in kilojoules (kg) and kilocalories (kcal), and information on fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt content.

The Department of Health introduced a voluntary traffic light labelling system in 2014, to help customers make healthier food choices. Since then many companies have chosen to display the Fat, Saturate, Sugar and Salt content and their RDAs on the front of the packaging. Each category is also graded red, amber or green, according to how healthy (or unhealthy) the food is. 

Healthy eating was also the focus of the "five a day" campaign launched in 2003. Eating five daily portions of fruit and vegetables was shown to bring numerous health benefits, according to the World Health Organisation.

Food companies were quick to adapt the campaign for their packaging labels. "1 of your 5 a day" is now used as a selling point on many tinned products, such as Heinz Beans.

a colour coded food nutrition label a colour coded food nutrition label
Colour-coded nutrition labels help customers to make informed choices.

Tips for interpreting Food Packaging Symbols

Food packaging symbols are not static. They can change due to new legislation, customer demand or fresh initiatives on health and the environment. Food companies need to keep up-to-date for legal reasons, failure to comply can lead to a prosecution under Food Law.

Food packaging symbols are also about opportunity. They enable food businesses to showcase the benefits of their products. To display their eco-credentials, or match a specific dietary requirement.

We're used to looking at the back of the packaging to find important information. Processed foods and sustainability are the hot topics in nutrition, so well-informed customers are studying packaging labels harder than ever, so make sure your business labels wisely!

Invopak - Your Food and Beverage Packaging Supplier

Invopak began supplying buckets to the food industry in the early 1970s and they've been one of our core product lines ever since! We understand the needs of food and beverage businesses like yours and can help you choose the right packaging.

IML printing is available across our bucket and tub range, and our in-house design team can help those labels really sell your brand. Please get in touch, if you have any questions, or you'd like to find out more, we're here to help.