What is a food label and why is it important?
Imagine walking down the supermarket aisle and finding that all the foods on the shelves are packaged in plain cardboard boxes and unmarked aluminum cans. How would you know if a brown box contained one pound of pasta or 100 dog biscuits?
Do the blank cans hold chicken noodle soup or crushed pineapple? Food labels don’t just make food shopping easier; they also serve important functions that make them helpful tools for anyone who wants to eat a healthy diet. First and foremost, they tell you what’s inside the package. Second, they contain a Nutrition Facts panel, which identifies the calories and nutrients in a serving of the food.
Third, they list Daily Values (DVs), which help you determine how those calories and nutrients will fit into your overall diet.
The food label tells you what’s in the package
To help consumers make informed food choices, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the labeling of all packaged foods in the
- The name of the food
- The net weight of the food (the weight of the food in the package, excluding the weight of the package or packing material)
- The name and address of the manufacturer or distributor
- A list of ingredients in descending order by weight, with the heaviest item listed first
- Nutrition information, which lists total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron
- Serving sizes that are uniform among similar products, which allows for easier comparison shopping by the consumer
- An indication of how a serving of the food fits into an overall daily diet
- Uniform definitions for descriptive label terms such as “light” and “fat-free”
- Health claims that are accurate and science based, if made about the food or one of its nutrients
- The presence of any of eight common allergens that might be present in the food, including milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts (cashews, walnuts, almonds, etc.), peanuts, wheat, and soybeans
Very few foods are exempt from carrying a Nutrition Facts panel on the label. Such foods include plain coffee and tea; some spices, flavorings, and other foods that don’t provide a significant amount of nutrients; deli items, bakery foods, and other ready-to-eat foods that are prepared and sold in retail establishments; restaurant meals; and foods produced by small businesses (companies that have total sales of less than $500,000).
Compare two food labels. Note that the amount and type of nutrition information on the 1925 box of cereal is vague and less informative than the more recent version, which meets the FDA’s current labeling requirements. Whereas raw fruits and vegetables and fresh fish typically don’t have a label, these foods fall under the FDA’s voluntary, point-of-purchase nutrition information program.
Under the guidelines of this program, at least 60 percent of a nationwide sample of grocery stores must post the nutrition information of the most commonly eaten fruits, vegetables, and fish near where the foods are sold. Nutrition labeling is mandatory for meat and poultry, which is regulated by the USDA. Meat and poultry items that are prepared and sold at the supermarket, such as take-out cooked chicken, do not have a nutrition label.
Virtual Food Label Fun
Take this virtual shopping trip challenge to see how food-label savvy you really are. Visit www.accessdata.fda.gov/videos/CFSAN/HWM/hwmintro.cfm for some comparison-shopping fun!