Food packaging and labelling


Food packaging protects and preserves food. A range of materials can be used for packaging, some of which are environmentally friendly. Labels carry information for the consumer. Some of this information is required by law.

Packaging functions

Six eggs inside a protective egg carton.

The main purposes of food packaging are:

  • to preserve the product
  • to protect the product from damage
  • to make the product more attractive to the consumer
  • to make it easier to transport the product

Packaging materials


Plastics are widely used in food packaging because they are:

  • versatile – plastics can be flexible or rigid, and can be moulded into shapes.
  • resistant to acids and other chemicals
  • easy to print on
  • lightweight
  • cheap to produce

(Note: not all plastics have all the above qualities.)

Modified-Atmosphere Packaging (MAP)

Air in a plastic container can be modified to prolong shelf life and slow down colour deterioration.

MAP is used to package:

  • cold meats
  • smoked fish
  • cheeses
  • salads
  • fresh pasta

Other packaging materials

Paper, card, metal and glass can also be used for packaging.

Advantages, disadvantages and uses of different types of materials.

  • – reusable
  • – heat-resistant
  • – recyclable
  • – keeps shape
  • – low cost
  • – fragile
  • – safety issues
  • – heavy
  • – baby foods
  • – salad cream
  • – pickles
  • – recyclable
  • – lightweight
  • – impermeable
  • – withstands heat processing
  • – may react with food
  • – soup cans
  • – take-away containers
  • – bottle tops
  • – easy to print on
  • – cheap to produce
  • – biodegradable
  • – recyclable
  • – can be moulded
  • – can be coated
  • – lightweight
  • – not water-resistant
  • – easily damaged
  • – fruit-juice cartons
  • – egg boxes

Environmentally friendly packaging

Soft drink cans ready for recycling.

Environmentally friendly packaging causes less damage to the environment. There are three types:

  • Reusable packaging can be cleaned and re-used. For example, glass milk bottles are reused.
  • Recyclable packaging is made of materials that can be used again, usually after processing. Recyclable materials include glass, metal, card and paper.
  • Biodegradable packaging will easily break down in the soil or the atmosphere.

Recyclable packaging should carry standard symbols that show what the product is made from and how it can be recycled.

Layers of packaging

There are three levels of packaging.

primary packaging, secondary packaging, transit packaging
  • Primary packaging is seen at the point of sale. It needs to contain and protect the food product, as well as display it and provide information.
  • Secondary packaging is the middle layer of packaging – for example a cardboard box with a number of identical products inside.
  • Transit packaging is the outer container that allows easier handling during transfer between factory, distribution centres and retailers


The Food Labelling Regulations of 1996 require certain information to be given on all pre-packed foods. These requirements are written by the EU.

Food labelling

Food labelling on a can of peas - manufacturer's name, name of product, illustration, symbol for average quantity, weight, description, special claim, price

These are the items on the label that are required by law.

  • manufacturer’s name and contact details
  • name of the product
  • description of the product
  • weight (some foods are exempt, for example bread)
  • ingredients (listed in descending order of weight)
  • cooking/heating instructions
  • storage instructions
  • shelf life
  • place of origin
  • allergy information

The following items are not legal requirements, but are nevertheless good practice and often included on packaging:

  • illustration of product
  • price
  • nutritional values of the product
  • customer guarantee
  • the batch-code and bar-code numbers
  • opening instructions

Nutritional Information

The packaging for some pies shows nutritional information in an easy-to-understand way, using green, amber and red to show many fats, sugars, etc the food contains.

The Food Standards Agency devised a traffic light system to make it easier for consumers to know the nutritional content of food.

Nutritional software can be used to analyse the nutritional content of foods.