Reading Food Labels

Food labels have been required on most processed and packaged foods since the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1906; it was not until 1973 that voluntary nutrient labeling of food products began. In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) led to the development f the nutrition facts panel, required on food labels since 1994.

Food labels provide consumers with information to help them make more informed, healthful choices when shopping for food. By law, food labels are required to contain the following:

• A statement of identity
• The net contents of the package
• The name and address of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor
• An ingredients list
• Nutrition information

Nutrition Facts Panel

A nutrition facts panel appears on virtually all packaged food labels. It provides valuable information to help consumers make more informed and healthful selections when shopping for groceries.

Found on the side or back of a food package, the nutrition facts panel contains the following information:

• Serving size – This reflects the amount of food the government considers to be a typical serving size. Within some categories, serving sizes for different products may not be the same, so it’s important to consider this when comparing products. For example, one serving of one ready-to-eat cereal might be ¾ cup, whereas one serving of another might be 1 ½ cups. Servings per container tells you how many servings are in the entire package.
• Calories – This is a measure of the amount of energy in one serving of the item. The number of servings you consume determines how many calories you derive from the product. For example, if a cereal has 110 calories for a 1-cup serving but you eat 2 cups, that’s 110×2 = 220 calories.
• Calories from fat – This is useful because of all the key macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein), fat provides the most calories per gram. Being aware of the amount of fat you consume and cutting back on total fat intake can likely help you curb your total calorie intake.
• Nutrients of concern – The following five nutrients appear on labels and tend to be those Americans foten don’t get enough of and should increase in the diet:

1. Fiber
2. Vitamin A
3. Vitamin C
4. Calcium
5. Iron
• Other specific nutrients – The following nutrients also appear on food labels. With the exception of protein, these nutrients are those Americans tend to overconsume and should decrease in the diet; they include

o Saturated fat (listed under total fat)
o Trans fat (listed under total fat)
o Cholesterol
o Sodium
o Protein
• Sugar is listed under total carbohydrate. The nutrition facts panel does not yet distinguish between sugar that’s naturally occurring (such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruit) and sugar that’s added to food. Because Americans tend to overconsume added sugar, current dietary guidelines recommend decreasing added sugar intake. Ingredient lists on food labels can help consumers identify added sugars found in products.
• Percent Daily Value – Daily Value (DV) is a dietary reference value based on Daily reference Values (DRVs) and Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs) that helps Americans compare nutrients found in different foods. It is based on a standard 2,000-calorie diet. A food that contains 10-19 percent of the DV for a nutrient is a “good source” of that nutrient; one that boasts at least 20 percent of the DV for a nutrient is “high” in, or a rich source of, that nutrient.

Some nutrients can be voluntarily included on nutrition facts panels. This includes calories from saturated fat; polyunsaturated fat; potassium, soluble, and insoluble fiber; sugar alcohols; other carbohydrates; other vitamins and minerals; and percent of vitamin A present as beta-carotene.

Ingredients List

One food labels, ingredients are listed by their common or usual names in descending order by weight. Those that appear first are the most prominent, while those listed last are the least prominent. The following must also be included on ingredient lists:

• Any of the “8 Major Allergens”
• FDA-certified color additives
• Specific ingredient information (for example, the source of the protein)

A warning statement must be provided on food packages of items that contain food additives such as aspartame (an artificial sweetener) and sulfites (a preservative) that can potentially be harmful if consumed by certain people.

Also, when a preservative or some other additive is used in a product, it must be listed by its common name and its function (the terms “preservative”, “to retard spoilage”, “a mold inhibitor”, “to help protect flavor”, or “to promote color retention”) can be used.

A statement of identity is a mandate that commercial food products display prominently the common or usual name of the product or identify the food with an “appropriately descriptive term”.

Net contents refers to the weight, volume, measure, or numerical amount of food contained in the package.

Other carbohydrates, when listed on a nutrition facts panel, refers to the difference between total carbohydrate and the sume of dietary fiber, sugars, and sugar alcohol.

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