Nutrition Labels: Decoding Food Packaging
Have you ever noticed how your favourite almond cookies often mention almonds almost as one of the last ingredient references in their ingredient list? Or perhaps you’ve picked up a snack labelled as ‘healthy,’ only to discover less-than-ideal ingredients tucked away in small print at the end. It’s a common experience to be drawn in by attractive packaging, only to realise the true nature of a product lies in the often-overlooked details of the nutrition label.
For example, take those beloved hazelnut spreads gracing our breakfast tables. A closer look at their ingredients reveals a composition primarily of sugar and palm oil, with actual hazelnuts trailing behind. Despite their delicious reputation, a breakdown shows they are more about sugar and fat than the hazelnut delight they’re marketed as.
Nutrition labels, ingredient lists, and food labels are valuable sources of information. It reveals a lot about the food products people include in their daily diets. Still, it comes as no surprise that consumers often overlook or neglect the details provided on food packaging. Sometimes, there may be hidden issues within a product’s seemingly simple ingredients.
This analysis shows the importance of carefully reading nutritional information on product labels, particularly concerning food products that are often perceived or marketed as healthy. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should altogether avoid such products. However, taking the time to read and understand the nutrition label can help you make more conscious decisions.
What is a Nutrition Facts Label?
The “Nutrition Facts Label” is a specific part of the overall food label. As the name suggests, it covers detailed information about the nutritional content of the product. It provides details on serving size, calories, macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, proteins), micronutrients (vitamins, minerals), and specific components like flavours, preservatives, and added sugars.
The nutrition facts label is typically placed in the primary or top section behind the packaging. However, its placement can vary among different food and beverage products. The bottom section of the label includes a footnote explaining the % Daily Value.
Types of Nutrition Labels
There are usually two types of nutrition facts labels. They are:
For products larger than a single serving but still suitable for one or multiple sittings, manufacturers use “dual-column” labels. These labels indicate the amounts of calories and nutrients on both a “per serving” and “per package” or “per unit” basis. Dual-column labelling enables consumers to quickly identify the caloric and nutrient content when consuming the entire package at once.
Single-ingredient Sugar labels
Single-ingredient Sugar labels refer to the nutrition labels on products like pure honey, pure maple syrup, or pure sugar. It may not always list the number of grams of added sugars in a serving. Still, they include a declaration of the % Daily Value for Added Sugars. It helps consumers know how a serving of these products adds to the Daily Value of added sugars in their overall diet.
The Four Components of Nutrition Label and What They Mean
Every nutritional facts label has the following four parts:
- Serving size represents the usual amount people eat or drink in one sitting. It is not a recommendation but instead reflects the typical portion size. All the nutritional information provided on the label, such as calories and nutrient amounts, refers to this specific serving size.
- Calories indicate the amount of energy provided by one serving.
- Nutrients in the Nutrition Facts label include a list of the nutrients in the foods and beverages.
- The Percent Daily Value (% DV) indicates the percentage of the recommended daily intake of a specific nutrient that is present in one serving of the food. A nutrient is high in a product if the DV value is 20%. It is low if the value is 5% DV or less.
What is a Food Label?
Unlike the Nutrition Facts label, the food label provides a detailed overview of the product. It is not limited to just nutritional numbers or values. For example, a standard food label covers the product name, brand, manufacturer information, ingredient list, allergen information, and nutrition facts. Hence, a food label helps consumers make informed choices based on various factors, not just nutritional content.
Food labels often provide additional information beyond the Nutrition Facts label. Here are a few examples:
Country of Origin: Food labels indicate the food’s country of origin, providing consumers with information about where the food comes from.
Organic Certification: Organic-certified food labels feature logos or information signifying adherence to specific organic farming standards. It indicates the avoidance of synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, and artificial additives.
Health Claims: Health claims highlight the positive attributes or potential health benefits of the product. Many food products boast claims like “good source of fibre” or “good source of calcium” in bold letters. While these statements sound promising, they simply indicate that the food contains at least 10% of the daily value for that particular nutrient.
Health claims can be beneficial, especially for individuals with specific health concerns. For instance, if someone is at risk for high blood pressure, they might seek out a nutrient content claim on a food product that indicates it is “low sodium.”
Ingredient List: If a food product contains multiple ingredients, the label must include an ingredient list. The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, with those in the most significant amounts appearing first. This information is especially essential for individuals with food sensitivities or allergies, those adhering to specific dietary restrictions, or individuals following a particular eating style.
Use-By or Best-Before Date: Understanding the labels “use-by” and “best-before” is crucial for maintaining food safety and quality. The “use-by” date is critical for perishable items, indicating the last day the product is considered safe to consume. After this date, foods may become unsafe due to the growth of bacteria that could cause food poisoning. Therefore, it’s advisable to strictly adhere to this date for perishable goods like dairy, meat, and some ready-to-eat salads.
On the other hand, the “best-before” date refers to when a non-perishable item, such as canned goods or dry pasta, is likely to start losing its optimum texture, flavour, and nutritional value. However, consuming products past their “best-before” date doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unsafe. These items may still be edible beyond this date, but their quality might not be as good. It’s a guide rather than a strict rule, though it’s advisable to use caution and rely on sensory checks (smell, taste, texture) to decide whether a food past its “best-before” date is still enjoyable and safe to eat.
Directions for Use: Directions for use provide instructions on how to prepare or consume the food product properly. Consumers must follow the directions to enjoy the product as intended and avoid any improper use that could trigger potential risks.
Storage Instructions: Proper storage instructions help prevent spoilage, maintain freshness, and ensure the product meets safety standards. Directions such as refrigeration, freezing, or keeping the product in a cool, dry place can guide consumers on how to store the product to maintain its quality and safety.
Importance of Food Labelling
Food labels are a legal necessity to inform consumers about nutritional values, ingredients, manufacturers, health claims, possible allergens, and other important health information. This data empowers consumers to make informed decisions about whether they can consume a particular product.
Following are the primary reasons why food labels are important:
To Retain Food Quality
One of the most prominent reasons for concerning health issues and their devastating impact is the consumption of food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, and chemicals. Labels play a crucial role by providing warnings and essential information such as storage conditions and cooking instructions. This information is vital for ensuring that food remains safe, preventing microbial contamination and spoilage.
To Detect Fake Products
Without legally recognised labels, food vendors might intentionally mislead consumers by providing false information on packaging. Therefore, food labels help ensure transparency and protect consumers from deceptive marketing practices.
Without knowledge of a product’s ingredients, there’s a potential for allergic reactions. Food labels indicate whether a product contains common allergens, such as peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, and wheat. Food labels will also clearly mention gluten-containing cereals. This information helps those with gluten-related conditions such as coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity.
Make Better Choices
The ingredients and nutritional panel on product packaging help identify if a product is high in trans-fat or saturated fat or contains unhealthy artificial substances that one must avoid. Labels also enable comparisons between different brands of similar items. It helps consumers in selecting the most nutritionally rich alternative.
Origin information on food labels holds significant importance for consumers who prefer purchasing products from local producers. Certain labels indicating the food’s origin, like Colombian Coffee (Colombia) or Darjeeling tea (India), can capture a customer’s attention who links quality to geographical origins and traditional practices.
How to Read Food Labels?
Interpreting nutrition facts is vital to maintaining a healthy diet. However, if food labels seem confusing, here is a simple explanation of common nutrition claims and terms.
- Low Calorie: It means the product contains 40 calories or fewer per serving.
- Low Cholesterol: It means that the food contains 20 mg or less of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving
- Reduced: The product contains around 25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than usual.
- Good Source: The product offers 10 to 19% of the Daily Value of a specific nutrient or vitamin per serving.
- Excellent Source: It means the product supplies at least 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specific vitamin or nutrient per serving.
- Calorie-free: It means the product contains less than five calories per serving.
- Low sodium: The product contains 140 mg or less of sodium per serving.
- Fat-free/sugar-free: The product contains less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving.
- High in: Product contains 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving.
- Fruit Flavoured: It often means that the product contains artificial flavours or chemicals designed to mimic the taste of the specified fruit. If real fruit is not on the ingredient list, the product likely relies on artificial flavourings.
- Multigrain: The term “multigrain” can be misleading, as it simply means the product contains more than one type of grain. Without the “whole grain” label, these grains may be refined ingredients. It indicates the food lacks essential nutrients.
- Organic: Organic products don’t necessarily mean lower calories, fats, proteins, or carbs.
- Added Sugars: Brown sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose
- Artificial Sweeteners: Sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame
Tips For Reading Food Labels
- Ingredient Order Matters: It means that the ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity. The first three ingredients are essential, as they make up a significant portion of the product.
- Watch Out for Long Ingredients Lists: A lengthy ingredient list exceeding two to three lines suggests that the product is highly processed. More processing can often mean higher additives, preservatives, and other potentially less healthy components.
3 Common Common Mistakes to Avoid
While reading the labels can become easier with the tips mentioned above, it is also crucial to avoid some common mistakes.
Mistake 1: Not Understanding Per Serving Size in Food Labels
“Per serving” on food packaging provides information about the nutritional content of a single serving size of the food product. The indicated serving size on the package reflects the typical amount of food consumed in one sitting. It does not account for the whole pack. For example, if a bag of chips states 150 calories per serving, with one serving being 15 chips, consuming 15 chips equates to 150 calories. If the pack contains ten servings, eating the entire bag means consuming 1500 calories.
The nutritional information under “per serving” on the label covers calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibre, sugar, and protein. Additionally, it provides the percentage of daily values for specific nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. These percentages, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, assist consumers in understanding how a particular food contributes to their daily intake. It’s commonly expressed in household measurements like cups, tablespoons, pieces, or slices, followed by the metric amount in grams (g).
Mistake 2: Neglecting Serving Size Value
It’s also crucial to note that the listed serving size on the package may not align with the amount you actually consume. For example, a soda bottle may say the serving size is 8 ounces, but if the bottle is 20 ounces, drinking the whole bottle means having 2.5 times the calories listed per serving. Therefore, understanding “per serving” is crucial for managing your diet because you might consume more or less than the listed nutritional values based on how many servings you have.
Serving sizes on food packaging can sometimes be adjusted to present nutritional information in a more favourable light for the product’s target market. This practice may not always reflect the amount a typical person would realistically consume. Therefore, consumers need to be aware of this potential discrepancy and use their judgment when interpreting serving-size information for more accurate dietary decisions.
Mistake 3: Serving Size vs. Serving Suggestion
Another point to note is that the serving size differs from the serving suggestion. The latter implies that what’s depicted on the box might not be included in the actual package. For instance, consider a box of cornflakes featuring a vibrant image with sliced strawberries and a splash of milk to enhance its appeal. However, it’s important to note that the strawberries and milk aren’t provided in the package. The label includes the phrase “serving suggestion” to clarify that if you desire strawberries, you’ll have to provide them yourself. It’s merely a recommendation for how to present or enhance the product.
It’s important to note that the nutritional values of any extra items featured in the serving suggestion, like toppings or accompaniments such as strawberries or milk, are not mentioned in the product’s nutritional information.
For an accurate understanding of the product’s nutritional content, consumers should rely on the stated nutritional values provided on the packaging. If you choose to incorporate additional items from the serving suggestion, it’s essential to consider and account for those separately in their overall dietary considerations.
Here are some common food additives and ingredients to be cautious of when reading food labels for a healthier diet:
1. Artificial Sweeteners: Such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose.
2. High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Often found in processed foods and sugary beverages.
3. Trans Fats (Partially Hydrogenated Oils): Linked to heart disease, often found in processed snacks and fried foods.
4. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Used as a flavour enhancer, it may cause adverse reactions in some people.
5. Artificial Colors: Such as FD&C Yellow No. 5, Red No. 40, Blue No. 1.
6. Sodium Nitrite/Nitrate: Commonly used as preservatives in processed meats, linked to health risks.
7. Artificial Flavors: Ingredients listed simply as “artificial flavours” may contain various synthetic compounds.
By being mindful of these additives and ingredients, you can make healthier choices when selecting food products. Always prioritise whole, minimally processed foods whenever possible.
The Final Word
Food labels, a legal requirement, serve multiple purposes, such as retaining food quality, preventing fraud, specifying allergens, aiding in better choices, and providing information on origin. The Nutrition Facts label, a specific part of food labels, follows a standardised format mandated by regulatory authorities. This label, typically located on the top section behind the packaging, includes details about serving size, calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, and other components.
The information provided on food labels empowers consumers to make conscious choices aligning with their health, ethical considerations, and preferences. It serves as a vital tool in navigating the diverse choices of food products in today’s market, promoting a healthier and more informed approach to dietary decisions.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is just to disperse knowledge and raise awareness. It does not intend to replace medical advice from professionals. For further information, please contact our certified nutritionists Here.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
A: The %DV is based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories, which is a general reference for the average adult. A 5% DV or less per serving is low, while a 20% DV or more per serving is high.
A: Added sugars are those sugars added to enhance flavour, texture, or shelf life. Examples include sucrose, glucose, fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup. Since these sugars do not naturally occur in the food, excessive consumption can disrupt weight management and overall calorie control.
A: The calorie count on labels is just a standard reference point for understanding the calorie content of the product. Your specific needs may vary depending on age, sex, height, weight, and activity level.
A: Look for the term “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredient list. The “Total Fat” will also include various types of fat, including trans fat.
A: Ingredients on the label are in descending order by weight. So, the first ingredient has the maximum concentration. If a potentially unhealthy ingredient is listed first, it indicates that the product contains a higher proportion of that ingredient.
A: Check the protein, carbs, fibre, and fat content per serving. Also, check the %DV for essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Choose products with healthier fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
A: Look for the total dietary fibre content in grams as well as % DV. For fibre, 20% or more of the % DV is considered a “good source” of fibre.
A: Total sugars is the overall amount of sugars present in a product. Therefore, it covers both naturally occurring sugars and sugars added during processing. Added sugars are added to the product during processing or preparation.
A: Serving sizes on nutrition labels are standardised and set by regulatory authorities. They often do not reflect what an individual would consider a realistic portion. For example, a labelled serving might be six chips, but an individual may consume more or less depending on their preferences or hunger.
A: The common mistake is believing that products with health claims and organic stamps are 100% natural and healthier. It is necessary to check the entire nutritional list, not just the highlighted claims. Avoid choosing products based on attractive packaging. Always check the serving size, as overlooking the serving size can lead to excess intake.