Foods labels: what to be aware of?

food label
food label
Even though I don't recommend eating processed foods, it's important to know how to read their labels.

This article is based on the labelling requirements in the U.S. If you want to know about how it’s managed in Europe, please consult the French version of this article.

First, there are several things which the manufacturers must indicate, amongst which:

  1. In the ingredient list, the ingredients must appear in descending order of predominance by weight. This means that if the label does not indicate the amount or percentage of the ingredients (it is not mandatory) or only indicates it for certain ingredients, you can be certain that the first ingredient is the one that is most present and so on in descending order. For example, if the list says "sugar, celery 15%, tomatoes 8%, water, salt", sugar automatically accounts for more than 15% of the product and, in this example, probably at least 60%.

  2. In addition to the mandatory mentions that are part of the Nutrition Facts Label, manufacturers must indicate the content of other nutrients for which the label makes a claim or if their advertising or product literature makes a connection between these nutrients and the product.

  3. Direct food additives must be mentioned in the ingredient list, with their common or usual name and their function. For example: “Ascorbic acid to promote color retention”. This does not mean that they are all safe, but that they have been authorized, for certain foods in certain quantities.

  4. Artificial colors must also be mentioned in the ingredient list. Certified artificial colors must be listed by their specific or abbreviated name such as “FD&C Red No. 40” or “Red 40”, while on-certified artificial colors must be listed as “artificial color,” “artificial coloring,” or by their specific common or usual name. This also does not mean that they are all safe, but that they have been authorized, for certain foods in certain quantities.

  5. Major food allergen must also be mentioned. These are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame. The exact type of tree nut (e.g., almonds, pecans, walnuts), and species of fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod) and shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp) needs to be specified. The allergen's food source must be indicated in one of two ways: either with the name of the food source of allergen in parentheses following the name of the ingredient, e.g., “flour (wheat)” or immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement, e.g., “contains wheat”.

    Gluten is unfortunately not part of the allergens that must be mentioned. Gluten-free claims must however meet the requirement that the food does not exceed a limit of 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten and most people with celiac disease can tolerate such very small amounts. Other allergens that do not need to be mentioned include lupin, mustard, celery, and sulfites. In addition to the fact that the amount or % of the ingredients and some allergens such as gluten do not need to be mentioned, I find it a pity that the amount of caffeine also does not need to be indicated, as too much caffeine may cause restlessness and tremors as well as rapid and irregular heartbeat.

On the Nutrition Facts Label, the manufacturer must indicate, amongst other things:

  1. Per serving, the amount of total fat, saturated fat (SFA), trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, fiber, total sugars, protein. In addition to quantities, the % of daily calorie value in reference to a diet of 2.000 calories a day.

  2. Per serving, the amount of vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. In addition to quantities, the % of daily recommended intake. Since 2016, the amount of vitamin A and C no longer need to be indicated, as deficiencies of these vitamins are rare today (they may still be indicated on a voluntary basis). Vitamin D and potassium have been added since 2016, while calcium and iron were already on the list before. That’s because nutrient deficiencies in the U.S. appear to be most frequent for these four nutrients.

    I find it a pity that MUFA and PUFA do not need to be indicated and that it makes little sense that cholesterol is indicated, as dietary cholesterol has very little impact on circulating cholesterol, which is mainly synthetized by the body to fulfill several roles. I also find that the serving size can be mistakenly interpreted as a recommendation of how much to eat, while it rather reflects how much people tend to eat or drink, which can be too much. In my view, it may make more sense to indicate the quantities per a comparable quantity of 100g or 100ml.

When it comes to claims, I am not convinced about the “healthy “claim. The current regulations for allowing a food or dink to display a “healthy” claim on its label are complex and depend on the type of food. In September 2022, the FDA made a proposal to update these requirements. Under this proposal, manufacturers would be allowed to display a “healthy” claim on their labels if the products do not exceed certain limits for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and provide at least 10% of the recommended daily intake for at least one of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, and fiber. From my point of view, this is far from sufficient and can still be misleading, presenting certain foods and drinks as healthy while they are not.

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