Reading food labels can seem overwhelming. Food companies want you to purchase their product so they follow trends and use words, colors, and pictures to persuade you to buy. A food label contains information that is required, some that is optional and some that is regulated. It is important for the consumer to understand this information so that they can make better decisions at the grocery store.
The food label must contain the common name of the product, the name and address of the manufacturer, the weight or measure or count of the contents, ingredients listed in descending order by weight, Nutrition Facts, and common allergens that may be in the product. Other things included on the product that are not required may be safety guidelines, preparation and storage tips and freshness dates.
Labels also may contain nutrition content claims, health claims and structure/function claims. Nutrition content claims mean the same thing for all types of foods no matter the manufacturer because they have specific regulations set by the government that they must all follow. This makes it easier to compare foods by their nutrition content per serving listed. Serving sizes are also set by the government so they do not necessarily mean that is how much a person would like to eat, but only how much is defined in the nutrition label.
When something is claimed to be “free” of something, such as calories or fat, it means that there is so little of it contained in the food that it probably will not have an effect on a person’s body. When a product states that it has a “reduced” amount of a substance, it describes a food that has at least 25 percent less of a substance. A “high” source indicates a food that has 20 percent more of the Daily Value for a nutrient. There are also parameters for the words “good source,” which indicates having 10-19 percent of the Daily Value, “more,” indicating an amount that’s 10 percent or more of the Daily Value, and “light” meaning that a food has a third less calories or 50 percent less fat or sodium than an original version.
Health claims help consumers to bridge the gap between food and lowered risk for some chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease. Health claims are supported by scientific evidence, but there are only a handful of claims that are approved. Some of these include calcium and osteoporosis, fruits and vegetables and cancer, folate and neural tube defects, potassium and the risk of high blood pressure and stroke, soy protein and the risk of coronary heart disease, soluble fiber from certain foods and the risk of coronary heart disease, among others.
Structure/function claims tell about how a nutrient or food may affect a person’s health. The catch is that they cannot imply any link to a lowered risk for disease. These types of claims may include things like, “helps promote healthy digestion” or “may help to lower cholesterol.” These claims do not need approval by the food and drug administration (FDA), but are subject to being corrected by them. Words and phrases such as “doctor-recommended,” “eco-friendly,” or “green” are only marketing terms and are not regulated by the FDA. Other popular marking claims include “energy,” “natural” when not used on meat and poultry, “naturally raised” or “naturally grown,” “high quality,” “local,” “no additives,” “sustainable,” and “wholesome.” While these still may be good and truthful, it is important to understand that they are not regulated and can often be misleading.
Although helpful to have information about a product presented in an easy-to-read and appealing way, it is important to understand the rules and regulations and to read the whole nutrition label. Look past the attractive colors, pictures, and marketing claims and find the qualitative nutrition information. Let the nutrition label be a helpful guide in selecting food that fits your needs and lifestyle.
Duyff R.L., (2012) American Dietetic Association complete food and nutrition guide. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.