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Food Labelling

A guide to food labelling to help make ethical shopping easy.

As an ethical shopper, there are a number of important labels and ingredients to consider when browsing the food aisle. However, many hidden ingredients and confusing labels can make ethical shopping a laborious and difficult task. 

Palm-Oil Free

The demand for more palm oil plantations and increased deforestation is having a devastating impact on local communities, biodiversity and climate change. Many consumers are becoming aware of the alarming consequences of palm oil and are trying to avoid the ingredient. However, this can seem a daunting task when over 50% of supermarket items contain palm oil. 

All food products sold in Europe must now clearly state in the ingredients list whether palm oil is used. They can't just say 'vegetable oil' any more. But much of the palm oil we consume is derivatives of the oil itself. It is important to try to avoid these derivatives as well because they make up about 60% of global palm oil use. 

Image: palm oil derivatives

Selvabeat, a vegan and palm oil-free magazine, have put together a handy guide to help you spot these derivatives. 

Take a picture of this image, or memorise the four words, and it could help you spot over half of the fatty acid compounds that are often made from palm oil.

Alternatively, to ensure you are definitely buying products with zero palm oil or derivatives, use our palm oil free list. The list includes a range of biscuits, chocolates, chocolate spread, pet food and nut butter.  

Image: Vegan Society


If you are avoiding all animal products, the first step is to look out for the Vegan Society trademark logo which appears on over 18,000 products and guarantees that a product is vegan and not animal tested. 

For products not carrying the logo, look out for a 'suitable for vegans' symbol.

However, spotting the symbol can be challenging when buying supermarket own-brand products. For example, The Co-op, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Tesco are more likely to label their products as vegan than ASDA or Morrisons. Check out the Vegan Society's list of vegan items in UK supermarkets.

The next step is to look at the ingredients.  Changes in food labelling laws means that all allergens now have to be highlighted in bold in the ingredients list. This means that all products containing dairy and eggs will be clearly marked, making it slightly easier to decipher unusual ingredients and check whether a product is vegan or not. 

The following allergens have to be displayed in bold:

Peanuts, nuts, sesame, crustaceans, fish, milk, egg, celery, mustard, wheat, rye, barley, oat, spelt, kamut, soya, sulphites, molluscs. 

We also have a number of helpful ethical shopping guides that include vegan products. All our Best Buy recommendations in our meat-free guide to burgers and sausages are vegan brands. We also have a guide for dairy-free ice cream. Our ethical guide to margarine and spreads details specific brands that are suitable for vegetarians and those suitable for vegans. 

Logo: Soil Association

Organic & Free Range 

Organic farming encourages the responsible use of energy and natural resources, the maintenance of biodiversity, regional ecological balances and water quality, and the enhancement of soil fertility. No synthetic pesticides and no herbicides are allowed.

Organic and Free Range labels are also useful for shoppers seeking higher animal welfare in their products. 'Organic' standards mean that animals must not be given any hormones, antibiotics or GMOs.

Free Range labelling varies for each animal. Chickens must spend half their lives outside, whereas pigs are born outside in fields and remain outside until slaughtered. While this allows animals more ability to roam, they may still be routinely fed GM foods or antibiotics. 

To ensure higher animal welfare standards it is best to pick organic produce. While all organic food meets free range requirements, free range produce doesn't have to be organic.

Look for the Soil Association logo, as this organic scheme seeks to set even higher standards than the EU organic requirements. 

Image: Best Buy Label

Ethical Consumer Best Buy Label

Our Best Buy Label helps you choose genuinely ethical products. Our team of researchers looks in detail at the environmental and ethical record of both the product and the company.

By evaluating the company first it ensures that our label would never be rewarded to a company selling a 'fairtrade' or 'organic' product if they are a controversial multinational corporation. 

The Best Buys are taken from our detailed product guides, rating everything from bread to banks. The product and company are then rated against more than 20 animal welfare, environmental and human rights criteria in our ranking system. 

Image: MSC label

MSC Fish

Established in 1997, the Marine Stewardship Council is the world's leading certification and eco-labelling program for sustainable seafood. 

Three factors play into determining whether a fishery can be granted the MSC certification.

1. Sustainable fish stocks – maintaining high populations

2. Minimising environmental impact – protecting endangered species and sustaining eco-system balance

3. Effective management – respecting international laws, observing rights of indigenous fishers

However, back in 2011 the MSC was criticised by Greenpeace for allowing controversial fisheries to be given MSC status. Richard Page, Greenpeace oceans campaigner, said these decisions 'seriously undermine' the MSC's credibility. 

Despite criticism, the MSC remains one of the most transparent certification schemes, providing a 'Track a Fishery Database'. It is always better to pick an MSC certified product than one without. Find MSC-labelled sustainable seafood brands and retailers.

A separate but similarly-named organisation, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), offers a 'Good Fish Guide' where you can search for sustainable fish species but it doesn't list brands or retailers. Its handy APP means that you can search for sustainable fish while shopping. 

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