With more consumers embracing sustainable living and raising their health consciousness, there is a steep demand for authentic nutrition information. With the rising number of obesity-related and heart diseases, consumers are increasingly concerned about what they are eating and how the food is affecting their health.
When buying food products, you notice the package and label. Packaging is used to protect a product from contamination and it is also a kind of advertisement to build brand awareness and identity. However, the labeling of a product is also done to fulfill the legal requirements regarding ingredients, nutritional or safety information.
Why Are Food Labels Important?
All countries have specific requirements regarding information that is printed on food labels. A label has to display the name of the product, the manufacturer’s name and address, net weight, serving size, list of ingredients, and nutrition information per serving. Food labels display information to help consumers make better food choices.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stipulates what information is required on food labels. The label should contain the following -
- Name of the product
- The manufacturer’s or distributor’s name and address
- Product weight
- Number of servings and serving size
- Total fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein, carbohydrates
- Vitamins and minerals
- Artificial flavor or preservatives added
- Best before date
The nutrition information empowers a consumer to compare the nutrient profile of products of similar nature and pick the one that suits their needs.
FDA and USDA are the major labeling regulatory bodies in the US. While the FDA regulates labeling for packaged food products - meat, poultry, and certain other products containing meat are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Such products should include additional information, such as -
- Inspection legend
- Signature line
- Safe handling instructions
Also, food producers have to follow standard definitions by the FDA & USDA while using certain claims like 100% organic and fat-free, etc.
By reading food labels, you can compare foods and find the foods that have nutritional value for you and your family. It will help you make healthy choices while buying food products. Consumers can use food labels to look for food items higher in vitamins, fiber, and protein, depending on their requirements.
Using detailed nutrition information, food manufacturers can encourage consumers to make healthy decisions concerning their eating habits.
However, it’s not easy to understand the food labels and often consumers don't pay attention to all the details that are required to make a healthy choice while shopping. It would do good if a consumer knows how to read food labels for healthy eating. Here are some tips to help in reading food labels so that you are not tricked by the health claims on food labels.
Don’t Go By The Health Claims On Labels
Realize that health claims on food labels are marketing gimmicks and advertisements. Words like ‘low-fat’ and ‘light’ may not tell you the exact story as the products may still be high in fat, sugar, and calories.
It is advisable not to judge a product based on any single item like fat, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrate, or salt. Many manufacturers try to promote their products highlighting a single item while not giving significance to other health-affecting ingredients. For example, food products that were promoted as fat-free often had high levels of sugar, which can be harmful if consumed in high quantities.
Read Nutrition Facts & Ingredient List
Nutrition fact labels show information that can determine how healthy a food item is. If a food product is advertised as trans-fat-free but the ingredients have a mention about certain other oils that affect your arteries, realize that it’s not a healthy option.
Serving Sizes & Servings Per Package
Nutrition labels display serving sizes and servings per package. Usually, they are expressed in quantities per serving on the label. Though the government standardized serving sizes decades ago, many products still use small sizes, thus giving a false indication that the food is safe. For example, if a serving of oil spray displays .25 grams, in reality, no one can use such a small quantity.
Check The Number Of Servings Per Package
Some years ago, many products were single servings. A bottle of cola was one serving. But, today, products have multiple servings. For example, if a 16-ounce bottle of soda contains 2.5 servings at 100 calories each, what would be the total calorie intake? Since no one will stop with one serving of the soda, it is important to read the number of servings per package.
Check The Calories Per Serving
It is easy to get tricked if someone thinks that by drinking the whole bottle of soda, one is going to accumulate only 110 calories. No, to arrive at the total number of calories you have to multiply 110 calories by the total number of servings, that is 2.5. Now you would understand how many calories you’ve been gulping down when you buy that.
Beware Of Rounding Down To Zero
Many manufacturers round down the servings to zero and consumers would think that if they eat or drink it, they would not accumulate any bad ingredients from it. But it's not always true. If you consume multiple servings, you would be heaping up quite a few calories.
Don’t Miss Out The Calories From Fat
Interestingly, the nutrition facts label won’t mention the percent of calories from fat. To get a clear picture, you have to divide the number of calories by the total calories. If the serving is 100 calories and 30 of which are fat, the product has 30 % calories from fat.
Another tricky area is the mention of the percentage of fat. If milk has 2% fat, it means it has about 34% of total calories from fat since it’s based on the percent of weight, and not the percent of calories.
Check The Sodium Level
Often, the percentage Daily Value (DV) of sodium is based on government standards, which are generally not as healthful as advised by Casa De Sante. It is better to limit the intake of sodium, especially if you have any health issues, prefer low-sodium or sodium-free food products offered by companies like Casa De Sante that have a curated list of healthy and gut-friendly products with proper labeling.
Check For Saturated Fats
Check for the presence of saturated fats in the ingredient list. Hydrogenated fats, or tropical oils in the ingredient list, are bad for your arteries and heart. Polyunsaturated fats (like soybean, corn, and sesame) and monounsaturated fats ( olive and canola) are less harmful but make sure it’s well within limits.
Look For Whole Grain Instead Of Flour
Realize that the flour mentioned on most bread and pasta products is refined flour and not whole grain. Look for whole-wheat flour or bran that contains only whole grains. Look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, which is an indicator that it is whole grain.
Nutrition facts on the labels help adopt and maintain better eating habits. Choose healthy over palatable stuff and be aware of the nutritional output of each food item.
Medically reviewed by Onikepe Adegbola, MD PhD