Food Labeling 101: Understanding Food Labels
About Food Labels – Don’t get Tricked!
Food labels transmit essential information that can help you make food choices. These labels carry lists of Additives, Nutrition Information and Ingredients that the food product may contain. Some of these labels carry important information such as Expiration and Manufacturing dates as well, which helps guide the ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’ time periods. Furthermore food labels are very helpful in keeping people aware of possible allergies the foods may cause and give information on additives certain individuals would rather avoid. The nutrition information box on these food labels helps us compare the nutritional profile of similar foods, and assists us in deciding which product better suits our needs.
Use-by and Best-Before
Foods that have a shelf life lasting for less than 2 years should carry a ‘best-before’ or a ‘use-by’ date. These two terms convey different kinds of information. The food label ‘best-before date’ talks about the quality of the food, that is, the food will remain good till that date, if it is stored in the recommended way. Even though it is still safe to consume these foods for some time once they’ve crossed this particular date, the foods may have fallen in quality or nutritional content. On the other hand, the ‘use-by’ date denotes the date after which the food cannot be sold as it has reached a point where it is not safe to consume the food anymore. Perishable items such a meat, dairy and fish carry ‘use-by’ dates.
How to Read the List of Ingredients
One of the most important things to consider when understanding food labels is how to interpret the list of ingredients. The list of ingredients usually states the ingredients in a descending order. The ingredient listed first tends to be present in the largest amount, and the one listed last is always present in the smallest amount. Any ingredient that is not an additive or an allergen and is present in a less than 5% amount does not have to be listed. However, it is highly essential that additives and allergens are listed eve if they are present in the minutest and scantiest of all amounts because of the health implications they may bear on certain individuals.
Food additives are only allowed to be used if they have a particular purpose to serve and they must be FDA approved. It is important that they are used in the least of all possible quantities, just enough to achieve their purpose. They are always stated in an order in the ingredient list based on class. Some common additives include preservatives, color and emulsifier.
The Nutrition Information Panel
The NIP or the Nutrition Information Panel carries information on 7 nutrients. These nutrients include energy in Kilojoules, Protein, Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Total Carbohydrates, Sugars and Sodium. Cholesterol content does not have to be listed unless a claim is made. The NIP tells us about the quantity of nutrients the food consists of per serving, and since the per serving content of every food is different, the serving size is always separately mentioned as well, for example, 30 g of sugar per 100 g.
The Truth about Food Label Claims
One very important matter of consideration when understanding food labels is the truth behind the claims some of these food labels may try to administer. In order to understand the truth behind these claims to the fullest, you must first understand what exactly these claims stand for.
No Added Sugar
No added sugar really means that the food product may not contain any extra added sugar, but may contain natural sugars. Moreover, sugar may be masked behind anything ‘syrupy’.
Reduced Salt Or Reduced fat
A reduced amount translates into an at least 25% reduction than what the original amount.
Low Fat and Fat Free
Low fat means that the food should consist of fat content lower than 3 percent, whereas fat free means the food product shouldn’t have fat content any more than 0.15%.
Percentage of Fat
This food label may be quite tricky but what you need to understand here is that if the label says the food is 80% fat free, it is also in other words saying it has 20% fat, which is A LOT!
For the Allergy Prone
Food labels can help make aware those who are allergy prone, of the ingredients that may make them susceptible to certain allergies. The main ingredients in the food products which can possibly cause allergies must be categorically declared on the label no matter how much the quantity.