Find out just what’s in your food

Mystery meat close-up shot

What’s really in your food?

With the continuing concern about what’s really
in the things we eat, here are some essential
need-to-knows about food packaging and labelling…



If something is described as, for example, ‘cherry yoghurt’ it must by law contain pieces of real cherry, although there is no minimum amount and the proportion could be minute. Artificial cherry flavouring would also still be allowed. A ‘cherry flavoured yoghurt’ must derive most (but not all) of its taste from real cherries but doesn’t legally need to have actual fruit pieces in it. And a ‘cherry flavour yoghurt’ can be entirely artificial with none of its taste derived from cherries.


Surprisingly, these terms aren’t covered by any legislation and can be used to describe pretty much anything. There are recommendations that ‘pure’ should only be used to describe single-ingredient foods, to which nothing has been added, that ‘fresh’ should mean no processed ingredients and for ‘natural’ the product is composed entirely of natural ingredients – but these suggestions are not law.


Most of us see ‘chicken’ or ‘beef’ on a ready meal packet or processed item like a pie or pasty and assume that means all the meat in it comes from a whole cut (like a breast or leg) of one named animal. Not so. A varying proportion of connective tissue is allowable. Meat from other species is also permitted (eg wild boar sausages can also have farmed pork in them and can even legally be made entirely from animals that are farmed hybrids of wild boar and domestic pigs). Then mechanically recovered meat and tissue (from blasting the stripped carcass with a hose) can be included (as long as specified on the label) to bump up the overall protein levels. Of course, it has now been shown that in some cases even the main named meat ingredient, such as beef, is in fact from another species entirely. 


Vague, non-legally enforceable terms that suggest an extra wholesome or artisan quality, but with no defined meaning. 

Spring water

Despite the pristine pictures of babbling brooks and mountains, spring water can still be chemically treated. By law, only ‘natural mineral water’ has to be untreated.


The Food Standards Agency advises that a hand-made product should be ‘significantly’ made by hand but that, “it would not be against public expectation for a hand-made product to be produced in an industrial setting.”

‘Best before’ and ‘Use before’ dates

The ‘best before’ date relates to the quality of the food and indicates the period for which a food can reasonably be expected to retain its optimal condition (eg not stale). The ‘use by’ date relates to the safety of the food and is required for perishable foods that, after a relatively short period, present a risk of food poisoning.

Light or lite foods

To say a food is light or lite, it must be the minimum of 30% lower in at least one typical value, such as calories or fat, than standard products and the label must explain exactly what has been reduced and by how much.


The claim that a food is low in fat can only be made when the item contains no more than 3g of fat per 100g for solids, or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids.

Want to be your own food detective?

You can find a full list of the Food Standard Agency’s labelling recommendations at, more about country of origin labelling at and tips on healthy eating at

One Response to Find out what’s in your food

  1. margaret says:

    Something that concerns me and a lot of my friends is the fact that a lot of meat is now halal. I understand that lamb from New Zealand is slaughtered in this way, and a lot of school meals and hospital food are prepared using this type of food. If most people knew this they would be horrified. How can we find out how our meat is slaughtered and why is it being kept secret?

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