How your phone can help when you are shopping

Take your phone to the supermarket to help you when looking at labels

‘If the font size is too small to read, take a photo and then zoom in. That way you can check out the ingredients later if you are not sure what they are.’ Photograph: iStock

A mobile phone can be very useful when it comes to understanding food labels, but not in the way you might think. There are quite a number of apps aimed at American consumers, but they are not appropriate for use here.

That’s because the rules on food ingredients, additives and labelling in the United States are not the same as here, according to Jane Ryder of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI). “Nutrition information labelling is totally different, for example,” she says.

Those apps that are useful include ones created to demystify additives in food including one simply called E Number. It works like a mini-encyclopedia and you can look up information on any of the hundreds of E numbers, not all of which have been approved for use in the European Union. It explains, for example, that E101 is riboflavin, or vitamin B2, and that the source can be microbiological or synthetic. It also lists possible side effects, though without listing any studies or sources.

As with most apps, however, this is not an official guide. So it should really just be taken as a starting point for investigation.


The FSAI has a list of E numbers and their full names under the additives section of its website. Manufacturers have come to realise that consumers do not like to see E numbers on labels. So you are now more likely to see chlorophyll and carotene on the list of ingredients than E140 and E160(a). Hence, the absence of E numbers even though the recipes may not have changed.

There are other apps that claim to scan the barcodes on supermarket goods and then explain the information. They promise to run the information through a database of hundreds of thousands of products. Those I found were designed for use in the United States and did not work, even on US products.

Some of the most useful apps for customers here are those for coeliacs, such as the one available to members of Coeliac UK, according to registered dietician Sarah Keogh. “It has a list of products that are safe,” she says, adding that even foods that do not have wheat, barley or rye as an ingredient may become contaminated in the factory.

Take photographs

For the rest of us, she recommends using your phone to take photographs. “If the font size is too small to read, take a photo and then zoom in,” she says. That way you can check out the ingredients later if you are not sure what they are. Labels can have mistakes too. Font size is a big cause of complaint but some consumers have noticed mistakes in ingredient or nutrition information too. In this instance, you can contact the manufacturer or make a complaint using a form on the FSAI website.

Safefood, a public body tasked with raising awareness of healthy eating, has a section on its website with a basic guide to reading labels.

It's in the form of a PDF, so you can take a photo and then refer to it on your phone when shopping. There is also a short video about reading labels. Safefood is making the effort to make sure that all of its content is mobile-ready, so it's easy to read wherever you are.

The Irish Heart Foundation has made handy reminder cards to take shopping. Using these, you can check how much sugar, fat and salt are in the foods you want to buy and whether the level is too high. To get this on your phone, simply Google "Food Shopping Card" and "Irish Heart Foundation" to find the PDF on the website. Then take a photo of it to use as a reference.

Keogh also says that the websites of some supermarkets, such as Tesco and SuperValu, can be useful for checking out details of food packaging. “Tesco is particularly good,” she says. “It has the full list of ingredients for a lot of its products.” These supermarkets also show the price per kilogramme, making it easier to compare products while shopping.

Learning to read food labels is a skill.

After 18 months of scrutinising packaging for The Irish Times, I still find new signs and symbols I never noticed before.

The key is not to be intimidated because the answer is out there somewhere.

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