Anatomy of a food label

Food manufacturers the world over, invest a lot of money in designing and creating labels for their food products. The reason is simple – to attract consumers. However, some studies suggest that many of us find it difficult to interpret the information on labels. And therein lies the rub.

Food packaging is supposed to provide us with information so that we can judge how best the food will meet our dietary goals. However, sometimes the packaging can be really confusing. Some food labels make vague claims that can perplex us. For example, unless you’ve thought carefully about it, the difference between a label that says a food is low fat and one that says reduced fat is not readily apparent. Or what does it really mean when a label shouts out that it is “healthy” or “natural”. How should we use such vague terms to make good food choices? Our respective governments along with national food agencies, standards bureaus and organisations, need to put stricter guidelines in place.

This week, I’m bringing to you, part one of a two-part series looking at the anatomy of a food label. I hope that through this series, we will all be more aware of food labels, know what to look out for, understand the information and become better educated consumers.

All parts of a food label are important, but the place on the package that most people look at first (and in some cases, only), is ‘Nutrition Facts’. This is where details about servings, portions, calories etc are stated. But I’d like us to start by looking at the overall information that should be on packages and to explain some of the information that we overlook or take for granted.

A good food label should tell us what the food is, where it comes from, who made it, what’s in it (composed of), how it was made, how much is there (quantity), how long it will keep, what it looks like and how we should prepare/use it. Some labels go even further to tell us how using it would benefit us. So let’s take a closer look.

What’s in the box, container, package –
this primarily refers name of the food, the contents. Depending on the product also, the label should further state whether the product is fried, baked, freeze-dried, smoked, pickled etc.

Where the product comes from – this is simply, the country of origin. Often, it is easy to confuse the country of origin with the country of assembly or packaging. Don’t because they are not always the same. For example, the concentrate for a particular juice may originate in let’s say, Florida, USA but the packaging may be done in Trinidad & Tobago. Knowing where your food comes from is important. For example, some people will declare that they only eat corned beef originating from Argentina based on the quality of the beef. Knowing where your food comes from is important, as you may prefer to support local or regional producers.

Where the product was manufactured and packaged – this tells us where the raw material was processed, where the product was composed, and put together (assembled). (See the previous paragraph.) I have to reiterate here that not because a particular product originated from a certain country it automatically means that it was manufactured or packaged there. Another thing, a product may be imported from a particular country, but that does not mean it was manufactured, packaged or originated there. The country from which it was imported may just be a distributor or retailer. Knowing this information speaks to the quality of the product and also has implications for your support of local or regional products.

How much of the product is in the package – this is the weight of the product; gross weight or net weight. Gross weight means the weight of the contents plus the weight of the packaging, whether it’s a box, container, plastic bag etc. Net weight is the weight of the contents alone. The weight of a package is important for price comparison and works in conjunction with the nutritional information. You always want to ensure that you are getting value for your money.

How nutritional is the product – this information is usually spelled out in the Nutritional Table or what is also called Nutrition Facts. This is one of the key areas of a food label as it speaks directly to the nutrient content of the product and its contribution to health. We read this label to determine if it’s good for us, and how much of it we should eat to get the nutrients.

What is product made of – there should be a list of the ingredients, including any additives it may contain like food colouring, anti-caking agents etc. It is always important to read the ingredients list especially if you suffer from allergies or intolerances. The list of ingredients should always be in descending order of quantity. In other words, the ingredient largest in quantity would be first on the list, then the second largest and so on, ending with the ingredient with the least quantity.  Always keep in mind that whatever the label proclaims the food item to be, that food-ingredient should be first on the list of ingredients. For example, if its orange juice, the first item on the list should be orange juice or orange juice concentrate. If the list starts with water, followed by sugar, then you know that the product has more water and sugar in it than orange juice.

How the product should be kept – this refers to storage. Following the directions for storage would ensure freshness, avoid contamination and keep the nutrients of the product intact. The food label should tell you what temperature, atmosphere or setting is best suited for storing the product. Depending on what the product is, some can be stored at room temperature as long as the packaging seal is not broken or the item opened. Some products need to be stored in a cool place once opened or may require refrigeration. This is particularly important for those of us who live in tropical climates as often the cool place for us is the refrigerator; hence the overcrowding of my fridge.

The dates – sell by, use by and best before dates and in some cases, the date of manufacture are important and tell us various things. Let me explain.

“Sell by date” is primarily for the stores or shops and not consumers. The “sell by date” is the last day that the product should be offered for sale to consumers. Once that date passes, stores should remove the item from the shelf. Actually, they must remove it from the shelf. However, because there is not always close monitoring, a lot of stores get away with this. Consumers have the right to demand that such products be removed from the shelf. Please note that if you’ve purchased the product long before the “sell by date” it means that the product can be stored for a reasonable period of time in your home under the suggested storage directions given on the food label.

“Best before date”, here the manufacturer is saying that once you use the product before this date, you will be consuming it at its peak of wholesomeness, taste and nutritional value. The manufacturer is not guaranteeing that after this date, the product will be at its best. However, you and I know that beyond this date, the food may still be perfectly satisfactory. This date is usually an estimation made by manufacturers.

“Use by date” sometimes referred to as the expiry date, indicates that the product must be consumed by this date. The “use by date” signals the end of the estimated period under any stated storage conditions that the product must be used. No store should display goods and products past their expiry date.

Next week, I’ll conclude this series and look in-depth at the Nutrition Facts Table that’s found on pre-packaged foods. I’ll discuss the two main claims some food labels make – health claim and nutrient content claim and suggest how to compare foods when looking at their labels.


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