How do I recognize what is inside packaged food?

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Do you wonder what exactly is in the yoghurt, juice or cookies that you buy when you go shopping? Or how to detect hidden sugar or halal products? The manufacturer provides information about the product on the food packaging. We'll tell you what it must say and what it means. 

Verbraucherin liest Lebensmittelverpackung im Supermarkt
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What must be written on the food packaging?

When buying food, you can read the information on the packaging and find out what’s inside. This way you can learn more about the product:

Food packaging on a bottle
Bild: Henrike Ott

 

“Name of the food product”

Many foods have creative names, for example “Peachy Ice-Tea” (see image). On the back of the bottle it says “peach-flavoured iced tea drink”, which is the legal designation of the product. This tells you exactly what’s in it. 

List of ingredients

In the ingredients list you will find all the ingredients contained in the product. The order of the ingredients depends on the quantity of the ingredients: At the top is the ingredient that is the most prevalent. In our example, “Peachy Ice-Tea”, the most prevalent ingredient is water. Then follows the ingredient with the second highest content: sugar. All other ingredients follow in the same descending order of the quantity they are contained in. 
Ingredients that can cause an allergic reaction are printed in bold letters, capital letters or an underline.

Nutrition facts label

The nutrition facts label tells you the amount of energy, carbohydrates, sugar, fat, saturated fatty acids, protein and salt contained in the product. These figures refer to 100 grams for solid foods and 100 millilitres for liquid foods. For example, “Peachy Ice-Tea” contains 6 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres.

Quantity

The quantity indicates how much of the food is in the packaging. It is specified in grams, kilograms, millilitres or litres. Sometimes the number of pieces is also printed on the packaging, for example in the case of packed lemons.

Contact

Packaged foodstuffs must bear the name or company name and address of the manufacturer, packer or seller. You can contact them if you have queries about the product or to complain if something is wrong with the product.

What is the shelf life of the product?

A date is printed on all packaged food. 
For products with a long shelf life, you will find the “best before” date. This means: 

  • you can eat the food at least until that day
  • and the food looks, smells and tastes exactly the same as on the first day.

These products often have a longer shelf life. If it still looks good, smells good and tastes good, you can still eat it. In the supermarket, you can often buy such products at a lower price. 

For perishable foods, such as minced meat or sliced salad, you will find a use-by date. You must consume the food by this date; after that you could fall sick. The supermarket is not allowed to sell products after their expiration date.

Price

The price is usually on or near the product, for example on the shelf. In addition, the seller must indicate the “base price”. 
The base price is the price per 1 kilogram or 100 grams for solid foods and 1 litre or 100 millilitres for liquid foods. It is often priced slightly below the price. With the help of the basic price you can compare the prices of different products, because not all products have the same packaging size.

There are different rules for unpackaged food, such as bread at the baker’s or fruit at the market. Information about the product is provided by the seller.

How do you detect hidden sugar in food?

Sugar is contained in many foods. It is not suspected to be there in many products. 

How much sugar is in the food?

On packaged food you will find a nutrition facts label. It tells you how many carbohydrates are in 100 grams of the food and how many grams of these are sugar. This figure describes the total sugar content in the product. This includes the naturally contained and added sugar.
In the list of ingredients on the packaging you will find information about added sugars or other sweetening ingredients in food. 

How to find food with little sugar

A lot of sugar is often found in highly processed foods, for example in desserts, processed dairy products, desserts, sweet baked goods, cornflakes and muesli or drinks. 
You can use the traffic light rating system to easily estimate the sugar content in food. Take the sugar content per 100 grams from the nutrition facts label on the packaging and compare it with the information in the traffic light system. It is important to note that only half of the values given here apply to beverages.

Find sugar and fat with the traffic light rating system

In the picture you can see how to assess the amount of fat (Fett), saturated fatty acids (gesättigte Fettsäuren), sugar (Zucker) and salt (Salz) in a product.
Green is the optimal food choice: in the traffic light system, for example, a plain yoghurt with 4 grams of sugar per 100 grams is green and can be eaten a lot. A strawberry yoghurt contains 13 grams of sugar per 100 grams and is therefore yellow. Products under the yellow label should be eaten in moderation and those under the red label, rarely. 

Sugar has many names

Besides normal sugar (chemical name: “sucrose”) there are many other ingredients that are sweetening and contribute to the sugar content. It can be hidden behind many names, making the sugar sometimes difficult to recognise.
Do you want to know which type of sugar is in a product? Then look in the list of ingredients for these sugars and sugar-rich ingredients:

  • Sucrose (household sugar)
  • Dextrose or glucose (glucose)
  • Fructose (fruit sugar), fructose syrup or fructose-glucose syrup
  • Caramel syrup
  • Lactose (milk sugar)
  • Maltose (malt sugar) or malt extract
  • Maltodextrin, dextrin 
  • Sweet whey powder
  • Barley malt / barley malt extract

How do I find halal products? How can I tell whether products contain gelatine or alcohol? 

How do I find products without animal ingredients or alcohol?

Each packaged food product has a list of ingredients. There, you can read about all the ingredients that can be found in the product. 
However, there are also ingredients that are not in the ingredients list, for example, when the manufacturer uses

  • gelatine in the clarification of fruit juice, 
  • alcohol in small quantities or in the production of colourings and flavourings, or  
  • animal emulsifiers from fatty acids. 

The manufacturer is not required to indicate the animal species used for meat ingredients either. Thus, lamb salami may also contain a proportion of pork.

You want to know for sure? Then ask the manufacturer. The term “vegan” can also help in identifying products without animal ingredients. In products labelled “vegan”, the manufacturers dispense with all ingredients (processing aids, additives, carriers, flavourings, enzymes) from animals at all stages of production and processing. You can recognize this by the yellow seal, the “V” in the middle, and the word “vegan”.

Our tip: In the case of packaged food, it helps to read the list of ingredients. If you want to be sure, you have to ask the manufacturer. For unpackaged food, you can ask the seller at the counter.

How do I find halal food? 

The term “halal” is not defined by law. There are many halal seals for products, but no uniform criteria. 
In the EU the term “halal” is not defined under food law. For “halal”, products there are no uniform standards for the “pure” food regulations so far. There are also no uniform certifications. What exactly the many seals for “Halal” stand for is very unclear and difficult to check. 
Since there are no legal requirements for clear “halal” labelling, the only thing left to do is to trust the seals and request information from the manufacturer themselves. This also applies to vegan food.