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How to Read Labels on Food Packages: Facts, Photos, History, and More!

Uriel is passionate about healthy living and exercising. He enjoys researching about nutrition and health issues.

How to decipher nutrition labels

How to decipher nutrition labels

What Do the Labels on Food Products Mean?

In the 19th century, manufacturers were not required to provide information about the ingredients or nutritional information of food items. Purchasing food then was a gamble.

Consumers are often unaware of their rights, and they do not possess adequate knowledge to decipher the information on food labels. Most people go shopping in a supermarket or grocery store without giving a second thought to the labels of food items. They often purchase food with considerations only given to the type of food item and the price.

By understanding how to read their food's labels, consumers can familiarize themselves with their food's contents and know exactly what they're putting in their bodies.

Parts of a Food Label

Packaged food comes in various forms, such as packets, cans, boxes, and bottles. Packaged foods have labels have information including:

  • The name of the food item
  • Ingredients
  • Net contents
  • Nutritional facts
  • Percent Daily Value (% DV)
  • Serving size
  • Allergen information
  • Manufacture and expiry date
  • Name and address of the manufacturer
  • Country of origin
Food labels (before and after 2018)

Food labels (before and after 2018)

How to Read Food Labels

The nutritional information and format of food labels have undergone a change from the original format approved in 1993. The US Nutrition Facts label was updated in 2018 but has been compulsory on food items since 1993.

In order to make informed choices and become a savvy shopper, you need to understand how to decode the labels of food packages. Below, we'll take a look at the sections of a food label and figure out exactly what they are for.

1. Percent Daily Value (% DV)

The Percent Daily Value (% DV) indicates how much a nutrient in a serving of the food or beverage contributes to a total daily 2,000-calorie diet. A person requires 2,000 calories a day to maintain their body weight. Depending on an individual’s lifestyle and nutritional needs, this value may be higher or lower.

2. Nutrient Content Claims

This section is intended to catch the attention of consumers; it helps them easily find foods that meet specific nutritional needs. "No salt,” “low sugar,” or “high fiber” are common content claims seen on packaging. Many nutritional claims are often inaccurate. Manufacturers often obfuscate some ingredients and therefore mislead consumers.

3. Serving Size

This is usually the first item on the food label. It contains information about one serving size or its equivalent. For example, if you open a jar of ice cream, and it says two servings per container, and you consume the whole jar, you have consumed double the amount of items listed on the label.

4. Ingredient List

This section provides an overview of the constituent elements that have been included in the food item. The ingredients list usually appears in descending order by weight. This means that typically, the first item on the list is used in the greatest amount.

It is critical to check out the ingredient list of food items before purchase. Some people are allergic to some substances; in this case, checking the ingredients is an imperative step.

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5. Health Claims

These sections describe the expected health benefits of the food item. Many people suffer from various conditions, disorders, and diseases. It is critical to check out the health claims on food items in order to make informed decisions.

Some food items might be detrimental to people suffering from certain conditions, disorders, or diseases.

6. Functional Claims

This describes how the food item supports or maintains a bodily function. For example: "Supports a healthy immune system."

Whether you are healthy or have a condition, disorder, or disease, you might be interested in checking out the functional claims of a food item.

7. Allergen or Other Dietary Information

This section contains information regarding specific allergens that are contained or might be present in the food item. Some companies manufacture food items in the location that handles other food items that might contain allergens.

Some products, if they do not have any animal products, are marked with a V symbol (representative of the word "Vegan"). Others will state they contain gluten, nuts, or other substances that are common allergens. This is intended to keep people safe and informed.

8. Net Contents

It indicates the net weight of a food item in a package. The weight of the package is omitted.

9. Country of Origin

This indicates the country in which the food item was manufactured. Some food items are imported from other places around the world, so this indicates how far it has travelled before arriving in your store.

Some countries have implemented a traffic light convention for expressing how healthy a processed food item is

Some countries have implemented a traffic light convention for expressing how healthy a processed food item is

Every manufacturer should be encouraged to provide truthful nutritional information about his products to enable consumers to follow recommended dietary regimens.

— From the 1970 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health

History of Nutrition Labels

Many manufacturers were unscrupulous and often added toxic compounds like arsenic, borax, and formaldehyde to extend the shelf life of food items. However, it has changed, and strict regulations require manufacturers to label food items.

In 1972, the FDA designed a nutrition label that was optional for food companies. At that time, it was not required to include this nutrition label on the outside of merchandise unless nutritional claims were made elsewhere on the package. This kept companies from claiming their product had "no sugar" or "high fibre" without supplying any proof.

In 1988, a report titled The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health was released. This report linked common lifestyle diseases to diets and eating habits, which sparked a massive interest in nutrition among Americans. This report helped propel the FDA to make nutrition labels mandatory on most food products. Now, after a few updates, we have the familiar food label we all know today!

European vs American Nutrition Labels

People have embraced healthy eating, and they are conscious of chemicals and additives that might be detrimental to their health.

It is important to note that manufacturers in the US and the EU have different systems for labelling products. In the EU, 'E numbers' are used, while in the US, additives are described using their chemical names.

For example, in the US, a label will read "sodium caseinate," while in the EU, the same label will read “E469.”

However, these naming conventions are not clear to the consumer. The chemical name "sodium caseinate" will not reveal that it is a protein derived from milk.

You Are What You Eat!

Consumers should be conscious of their food-purchasing decisions. A healthy and balanced diet is composed of wholesome foods, including fruits and vegetables.

Processed foods often contain high amounts of fat, salt and sugar. These foods increase the risk of contracting lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, stroke, hypertension and cardiovascular issues.

Knowledge of deciphering food labels is critical. Children and teenagers should be taught how to read food labels and make informed decisions. Being aware of what your food contains can help you live a longer, happier, and healthier life!

Sources and Further Reading

2 History of Nutrition Labeling - NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209859/.

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label.

“How to Read Food and Beverage Labels.” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-read-food-and-beverage-labels.

Magazine, Smithsonian. “The 19th-Century Fight against Bacteria-Ridden Milk Preserved with Embalming Fluid.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Oct. 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/19th-century-fight-bacteria-ridden-milk-embalming-fluid-180970473/#:~:text=In%20the%20late%201890s%2C%20formaldehyde,or%20%E2%80%9Cembalmed%20milk%E2%80%9D%20scandals.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Uriel Kushiel

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