How to Read Food Labels to Buy What You Intend

In the current world populations of many developing countries suffer from malnutrition or hunger. You might be surprised, but at the same time according to the World Health Organization study people in the developed countries also do not get enough micronutrients, such as iron, vitamin A and iodine.

To be aware of food supply ingredients a consumer should be attentive and have time and, what is more important, proper skills how to read food labels. Do you often check labels on food products in a grocery shop? With the current high-speed life style, often people do not have enough time to ‘decipher’ labels in small print and to estimate adequately what they are about to eat or to feed their kids. Pretty often people choose foodstuff of popular trademarks that they see in ads every day or recommended by friends.

Sometimes manufacturers take advantage of lack of our time and attention.

How to Read Food Labels

Here is basic info a ‘conscious consumer’ has to know about reading food labels. A standard food label gives information about:

  • ingredients in order of their proportion (that means if yoghurt is made mostly of milk, then milk should be listed first in the ingredient list),
  • possible artificial additives,
  • nutrition value (calories, grams of fat),
  • expiry date,
  • serving size,
  • region or country of origin, storing instructions,
  • and may contain other relevant agriculture/ health information.

As for labeling food products as genetically modified or organic, laws are different from country to country. For example, Australia, the Czech Republic and China have strict legislation to label and regulate food with GM ingredients. The EU, for example, rejects foods from the United States that are not in line with the EU GM standards.

Nutrition Facts Label

There are specific rules of displaying a label on a food product. Below you see the example of the U.S. food label that is actually called the Nutrition Facts label.

The Nutrition Facts label format was developed by the U.S. FDA and it is a standardized format to display specific ingredients/nutrients of a packed food product. It is regulated by the special act and aims at giving more user-friendly information for consumers to let them understand nutritional composition of food.

Who Controls Food Labels and Why We Trust Them

There are different organizations in the various countries responsible for controlling that information presented in food labels is accurate and trustful. That is USDA in the U.S., the Food Standard Agency in UK, and the European Commission in the UK. And if the organization is trustworthy, consumers believe its estimates and it definitely affects what they buy. For example the USA has their nutrient database that is highly trusted by public and is a source of detailed nutrition information and analysis tools for different organizations and consumers. This database helps to understand how food influence health and helps to choose healthier product.
Another example is the American Heart Association. Its sign is widely recognized and trusted by 83% of consumers, and 66% recognize it influences their shopping choice.

Manufacturer-friendly vs. Consumer-friendly Approach

There is one unobvious trick about food labeling. Pretty often food labels look far too ‘scientific’. The way the information is presented on food labels makes it difficult for a regular person to understand what she actually is buying. And usually people just want to know “if this food will make me fatter with time, if it may cause cancer, or trigger hyperactivity in my kids?” So many people do not find detailed and complicated food label really handy, they just want to know if this particular food is safe to eat or not.

How Food Labels Can Help

  • Food labels provide comprehensive information that may help buy healthier food
  • Be a critical buyer and use your common sense when buying food
  • Pre-packed products raise most doubts, be especially attentive with processed and pre-packed foods
  • It’s a great idea to use the USDA nutrient database or other scientific databases to select healthier foods, but bear in mind that even most precise and independent studies cannot be 100% accurate
  • Choose more whole unpackaged foods that are minimally-processed, thus you can minimize hidden harmful ingredients and stay healthier.
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