The amount of information you are allowed to put on the food label can be overwhelming. Which of these things should I list? The amount of calories, carbs, protein, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, fiber? And should I even mention grams of protein or grams of fat? What if I want to include the amount of total fat content? It can be very difficult to know the best way to list all the information that is required.
The truth is, there’s a lot of confusing information on food labels. Here, we break down the basics of what you should know when reading food labels.
I have been interested for a while in how foods are labeled. For example, when I read “reduced sugar” on a food label, I know that the product is made with sugar, but I don’t usually have any idea how much sugar is in it. Over the past weekend, I finally got around to calculating how much sugar is in some common foods, and I was surprised at the results.
Food labels may assist us in making better grocery shop choices. This article examines why we label food, what’s on the labels, and where the information on the labels originates from.
What is the purpose of food labels?
Food labels, in principle, assist us in making educated – and, hopefully, healthy – choices. Having food and nutrition information in a quick-reference style may aid us in selecting the finest meals for our requirements.
Food labels help guarantee that producers are responsible and transparent; in other words, you receive exactly what you see on the label.
That is, in theory. Is this, however, true in practice?
Yes and no, in a nutshell.
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Types of labels
Labels may be divided into two categories:
- Labels that are legally required: These are regulated by laws and regulations governing packaging and nutritional information disclosure. These are usually found on the back of the box and include details such as the ingredients and nutritional value.
- Labels given by the industry: These are put at the discretion of the makers. These are usually seen on the front of the box.
In Part 2, we’ll take a closer look at back-of-package vs front-of-package labeling.
Variation by region
Labeling of foods is required in many nations, including the United States of America, Canada, Australia, Korea, and New Zealand is a country in the Pacific Ocean.. Food labeling is left to the discretion of the producer in other countries, despite the fact that the EU has been debating food labeling for many years.
Food labeling regulations in several areas are included in the table below.
|Region||Food labeling||It is governed by||supervised by|
|Australia||Mandatory||Food Standards Code of Australia and New Zealand||Australian and New Zealand Food Standards (FSANZ)|
|Canada||Mandatory||The Food and Drugs Act and Regulations of Canada||Canada’s Department of Health|
|EU||Mandatory||1169/2011, Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011,||Commission of the European Union|
|Japan||Mandatory||Processed Foods Quality Labeling Standard||Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry|
|New Zealand||Mandatory||Food Standards Code of Australia and New Zealand||Australian and New Zealand Food Standards (FSANZ)|
|United States||Mandatory||Act on Nutritional Labeling and Education||FDA is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)|
Food producers have often sought to be in control of their own labeling, claiming that labeling laws and regulations are cumbersome.
However, voluntary industry-provided labeling has its own set of issues, including:
- Who gets to determine what goes on the label, and who gets to decide what doesn’t? How do they make their decisions? Is it possible for us, as customers and citizens, to observe and participate in this decision-making process?
- Relevant criteria: What is on the label, and why is it there?
- Who do food businesses report to in terms of accountability and objective evaluation? Who makes the decision on what goes on the label?
- Oversight: Who is responsible for ensuring that businesses are being honest and accurate? Who enforces the regulations if they aren’t followed?
Relying only on industry-provided labeling may not always be in the public’s best interests, according to history.
For instance, in 1954, top tobacco executives put out an ad claiming, “We accept an interest in people’s health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business.”
That promise hasn’t exactly been fulfilled in the past 50 years.
According to one researcher:
“Letting a business self-regulate without involvement from the government, customers, or public health advocates may have severe repercussions. When self-regulation fails, it may be a public health disaster.
(1) leading companies refuse to participate, (2) lax standards allow for harmful practices, (3) standards do not apply globally, (4) lack of transparency and objective scientific input undermines credibility, and (5) a lack of benchmarks and objective evaluation leads to ambiguity in interpreting both compliance and impact.” 245 (Sharma et al 2010).
To put it another way, don’t leave the henhouse to the foxes.
As a result, government-legislated and controlled package labels have played an essential role in providing consumer information as well as protecting public health and safety in a number of nations across the globe.
Product labels are standardized, accurate, honest, and based on scientific facts when there are clear regulations and laws in place.
What qualifies anything as “label-worthy”?
Food labels usually include information like:
- Components (including specific additives, such as coloring, emulsifiers, and preservatives)
- Information about nutrition (e.g. calories, grams of fat)
- Size of servings suggested
- Date of “best before”
- Where does the food originate?
- What is the best way to use and keep the product?
Ingredients are usually listed in proportional order. In other words, if the majority of the flour in bread is wheat flour, wheat flour will be the first component.
In Australia, producers must additionally identify the proportion of a product that is made up of a certain component — for example, if a yogurt includes 6% fruit, the packaging will read “strawberries (6%)”.
Display of labels
Other rules govern how the data is actually shown. An example of label requirements for a food label in the United States is shown below.
Above is an illustration of the regulations that regulate the appearance of food labels.
Modified genetically (GM)
The rules governing whether food can/should be labeled as organic and/or genetically modified differ by location (GM).
Some countries, such as Australia, China, the Czech Republic, and South Korea, will require GM components to be labeled and/or tightly regulated. The EU goes a step further by requiring the labeling of meat produced using genetically modified feed. (In reality, European nations have rejected goods from American suppliers that do not comply with EU GMO regulations.) Which begs the question of what we’re receiving in North America.)
Anything with more than approximately 0.5-3 percent GM components must be labeled as such in countries that label GM foods.
What methods do food businesses use to get data for their products?
Unless you have a food analysis lab in your garage and/or produce all of the components on your farm, you have to depend on the businesses who manufacture the food to tell us what’s in it.
Have you ever wondered where food manufacturers obtain the information on their labels? We’ve done the same.
Companies may analyze a product “in-house” at a food lab or send it out for examination for nutrition information labeling.
Sometimes the new meal isn’t even put to the test. Instead, the nutrients/calories are calculated using data from nutrition software applications.
Existing food items may be re-analyzed from time to time, depending on business policy.
Until a company’s annual revenue exceeds $100,000, it is not obliged to provide nutritional information on its labels. For new companies, this may be a costly changeover process.
Ryan contacted a few businesses to inquire about how they obtained their label data. Here’s what he discovered.
|Company||What they produce||Findings|
|ConAgra||Various processed foods and brands, such as Chef Boyardee canned pasta, Parkay and Blue Bonnet spreads, snack foods, packaged breakfast items, and Pam frying oils||I reached out to ConAgra and talked with a representative. They have an in-house food testing facility where all new items are put through their paces. When the ingredients in older goods change, they re-test them.|
|Kraft||Wide variety of processed foods and brands, e.g. dips & spreads, cookies, crackers, drink mixes, pastas and pizzas, snack foods, etc.||I contacted Kraft and talked with a representative. They have no information on how their food items’ calories and nutrients are calculated. Hmmm.|
|Kellogg’s||A wide range of foods and brands are available, especially packaged cereals and grain items including granola bars, frozen waffles, and Pop-Tarts.||I contacted Kellogg’s and talked with a representative. They have a food testing facility on site. They will retest current food items if any changes occur.|
|Celestial Hain||Rice Dream, Almond Dream, Maranatha nut butters, Yves Veggie Cuisine, and Earth’s Best are just a few of the “health food” brands available.||I tried calling and emailing, but received no answer.|
|General Mills is a company that produces cereals.||Pillsbury, Green Giant frozen veggies, morning cereals, Old El Paso Mexican foods, Nature Valley, Betty Crocker, Haagen-Dasz, yogurt, and a range of snack foods are among the processed goods and brands available.||The following was the only information I got from General Mills: The nutritional values of General Mills’ food items are labeled in line with the FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations.|
|ESHA||ESHA is a company that offers computer software. They offer a massive collection of calorie and nutritional data.||I talked with a representative, who stated that ESHA receives this data directly from the food manufacturers.|
The USDA’s Function
The USDA nutritional database is known to almost everyone in the nutrition geek world. In terms of calories and nutrients, it’s the Holy Grail. It provides data to a variety of companies, including NutritionData.com.
Ryan contacted USDA study head Joanne Holden, MS, and asked her a few questions about it. Here are some important details.
There are approximately 7600 items in the USDA’s nutritional database, which is a lot but not everything. Every year, they provide a partial update, updating meals that have changed (e.g., new reduced sodium soups, etc.).
The USDA is only able to analyze 60-70 items each year due to a lack of funding for food item analysis. The USDA is aware of major developments in the food industry (e.g., Kraft reduces salt levels in its products) and strives to remain up to date.
The USDA works with other organizations. They really receive nutrition data on beef and pork from the cattle and pork industries. It’s a collaborative effort. As a result, the USDA does not examine every food in its database.
The USDA hires individuals from all across the country to gather samples of the food they’re evaluating from 12 big supermarkets (no mom and pop markets). So, if frozen cheese pizza is studied this year, the top three or four frozen pizza companies will be determined (based on market share). Then 12 samples of these 3-4 frozen pizza brands would be examined (from 12 major stores throughout the nation).
Because it is costly to keep brand name information in the database, the USDA often creates a “generic” entry for popular items like “frozen cheese pizza.” To put it another way, if you buy a unique/small brand of frozen cheese pizza, the nutrition information may not match what’s in the USDA database.
Commercial labs with which the USDA partners provide the calorie and nutrient data. Each lab has its own set of strengths and limitations. Some provide more thorough vitamin testing, while others offer mineral testing, calorie testing, and so on.
The USDA uses the macronutrients in food to calculate calories. This adds up to the overall amount of energy/calories consumed. They use particular Atwater factors, which are a method for estimating the energy content of meals. These variables were established more than a century ago. Because the techniques for testing fibers aren’t always consistent, fiber is the most difficult to detect. Different approaches provide different outcomes.
In Part 4, we’ll return to the question of how accurate and useful this data is.
In the meanwhile, you may learn more by reading this article:
Basis and Derivation of Food Energy Value
Summary and suggestions for action
- Food labels may provide a wealth of information.
- Food labels may assist us in making informed, healthy choices.
- Food labels, on the other hand, may not properly represent what’s inside the box.
- Be a skeptical shopper who doesn’t always believe what’s written on the label is correct or helpful.
- The greatest variety will be seen in processed/pre-packaged goods. It’s possible that the information provided by the company isn’t correct.
- Stick to whole foods if you’re worried about what’s in your food, and utilize the USDA nutritional database (or a similar, reasonably impartial scientific database that performs its own research) to find out what’s in those foods.
- Recognize that even “unbiased” statistics aren’t always accurate or helpful. Don’t get too caught up with the figures.
Check out part 2 of this article series, where we look at food label claims, to learn more about food labels.
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(This post is part of a series on food labels led by our team member with more than 20 years of experience in the technology industry.). Read more about how can you know whether the information on a label is accurate and complete and let us know what you think.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the first thing listed on a food label?
The first thing listed on a food label is the name of the product.
What are the parts of food labels?
The parts of a food label are the nutrition facts, ingredients, and serving size.
What is included in the food labels on the food you buy?
The food labels on the food you buy will tell you what is in the product.
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