In 16th-century Elizabethan England, the merchant class was growing prosperous, and many people started affording nice things, such as fancy clothing. However, this presented a problem to the royals and upper classes: if you couldn’t tell who was of a noble station just by looking at their attire, how would you know if the person in front of you was important or not?
The queen attempted to solve the problem by decreeing a dizzying array of “sumptuary laws“ — essentially, a government-mandated dress code. She believed that the clothes a person wore told the world a great deal about them, and wanted to ensure that the messages conveyed by fashion choices were true and accurate. Only those of a certain rank could wear fine fabrics like silk, satin, and velvet. Dukes, marquesses, duchesses, barons, and knights were all instructed on allowed colors, size of neck ruffs, placement of furs, and sleeve length.
With that framework in mind, consider what goes on a food label as the way the manufacturer wants to present that item to the world. Is it delicious? Crunchy? Made by elves? Healthy? Ethical? For refined palates only? And how should this be communicated? A brand that knows its market will strive to make every square inch of its packaging sell the product to its intended audience.
Food Label Laws and Regulations
At the same time, various governments have enacted their own versions of food label sumptuary laws, enforcing and restricting certain language and images. Have you noticed that the photo of a bowl of cereal with milk and blueberries is always captioned “serving suggestion”? That’s so the package won’t mislead a consumer into thinking that the dry chunks inside the box also come with milk and fresh berries.
There are laws for food packaging about words and phrases that convey specific meanings, too. In the US, for example, “free-range” chicken means that the birds have some degree of access to the outdoors, and that they have at least two square feet of space per bird. Two square feet per bird might not be your or my idea of “free range,” but that’s the official meaning of the term.
Companies are also required to include a set of nutrition facts, including calories, serving size, macronutrient content, added sugars, sodium, and a bunch of vitamins and minerals. They must also include a list of ingredients, ordered by weight.
All these regulations mean there’s a natural tension between the legal requirements and the marketing department’s mandate to increase sales. Brands have to navigate that tension — to comply with regulations while still making their products appealing to consumers.
Food Label Confusion
Unfortunately, there’s often a conflict between brand goals and having to comply with government regulations, resulting in food labels that are often confusing. Take, for example, the trend to label bottled water as gluten-free and non-GMO, a practice known as “labeling what’s absent.” While no water that I’ve ever heard of has contained gluten (unless you just threw a slice of bread into a duck pond) or has been genetically modified, these terms still signal to consumers that the product is “pure” and “natural.”
Given the many choices you might have, it’s not always easy to figure out what the differences are between different foods and different brands of the same food.
And especially in places where fresh produce — which doesn’t need such labeling — is hard to access, it’s all the more important that people become aware of what parts of the food label are saying true and important things, and which parts are just marketing fluff or even downright misleading.
In this article, I’ll show you how to read and decipher food labels — common words, seals, nutrition facts, and ingredient lists — to understand what you’re really getting so you can make informed food choices.
Why Are Food Labels Important?
Food labels exist as a public health measure, to provide important details about what you’re about to put in your body. Details included on food labels are the nutritional composition of a food, as well as ingredients and their relative amounts. When relevant, they may also indicate important details about the food’s quality, origin, processing, and method of preservation.
With this information, the theory goes, you can make intentional decisions about what to buy. And hopefully, use that information to make safe and healthy choices. Ideally, information about nutrition will reduce obesity and the accompanying burden of chronic lifestyle diseases linked to diet — including health care costs, which tend to be borne disproportionately by historically marginalized communities.
Food labels may also help you avoid common allergens and expired food.
The problem is, a food label is only as useful as the reader’s ability to decipher the information it contains. To fully understand the Nutrition Facts portion of a label, for example, requires some basic knowledge of your nutritional needs. As well as instructions on what not to pay attention to (I’m looking at you, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, when you claim to be a “Good Source of VITAMIN D”).
This trick has a name — greenwashing. It’s important to look closely at the different elements of food labels, so you’ll know what to look for — and what to look out for — when you purchase packaged foods.
Just a reminder before we dive in — some of the healthiest foods you can eat include fresh fruits and vegetables, which don’t usually have much in the way of food labels. So one easy label “cheat” is to limit the amount of food, to the extent that you can, that requires a label in the first place.
Front of Package Food Claims
Basically, the front of the package is the “Wild West” of the food label. This is the part that consumers see first, and can most powerfully influence their purchase.
One gimmick that food companies know increases sales is adding a meaningless health stamp or checkmark that implies the food within is good for you. When consumers rely on these images without also reading the Nutrition Facts label, along with the ingredients list, they can end up making unhealthy choices without even knowing it.
Front of package claims may also include certifications about how a food was grown or produced. This can include words such as “Natural” or “Non-GMO” — but without a certification seal.
Food manufacturers can pick and choose here, displaying words or images that may highlight the appealing qualities of a food (such as “made with whole grains”) while leaving out less favorable information (like also including refined grains, or being high in sodium, sugar, or saturated fat). In the United States, all front-of-package labels are voluntary, which allows food manufacturers to highlight or ignore nutrition information to help promote or preserve sales.
While food labels can throw around generic terms like “natural” and “pure” with abandon, they’re severely restricted in the health claims they can make. Even though many studies suggest that green tea is a powerful cancer-fighting agent, for example, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces a disclaimer on any tea label that wants to talk about this benefit. The disclaimer reads: “Green tea may reduce the risk of breast or prostate cancer although the FDA has concluded that there is very little scientific evidence for this claim.”
Outside the US, some countries have implemented warning labels that can look like traffic lights or stop signs to highlight health-compromising ingredients, such as sugars and saturated fats in sweetened beverages and ultra-processed snacks.
FDA Nutrient Content Claims
Here’s a list of common words that can be included on the packaging of food sold in the US as long as the food meets particular criteria as defined by the FDA.
Note that other countries have their own rules, so if you don’t live in the US, different standards may apply. The European Union’s version of this table can be found here.
|There are no more than 3 grams of fat per serving. Fat is often replaced with sugar. Low-fat products are not necessarily healthy. They could, for example, be a combination of white flour and sugar.
|Contains at least 25% less fat than the “original” version of the product. This could be a step in the right direction, especially if the fats in the product are coming from fried foods, but it doesn’t guarantee the product is healthy.
|Less than 140 mg of sodium per serving. This can be a helpful target, especially if you are selecting a healthy product such as canned beans.
|Sodium-free or no sodium
|Less than 5 mg sodium per serving. This can be a helpful target if you are selecting a product that is otherwise healthy.
|At least 25% less sodium than the regular or original product. If you reduce the sodium in a high sodium, highly processed food, it does not mean the product is suddenly a healthy (or even a low-sodium) choice. Reduced sodium chips may still be fried and (slightly less) salted slices of potato.
|There is not yet a specific requirement for this claim. It is often used for foods with less than 5–10% of calories from carbohydrates. This typically means the product is mostly fat — and in processed foods, it is often highly processed fat. It may also be high in chemicals, flavorings, and preservatives.
|The food must have a serving size of >30 g (1 ounce) and fewer than 40 calories per serving. Low-calorie junk food is still junk food — often padded with a lot of air (like certain kinds of chips) or water (like sweetened drinks).
|The food must contain at least 25% fewer calories than the original version of the product. It could be a better option than the original — but if the original is not healthy, neither is the reduced-calorie version.
|The product has 50% less fat than the original product. Again, the product is not necessarily healthy — it could be watered down, or the fat could have been replaced with sugar or nonnutritive fillers, to reduce caloric density.
|This means that the food contains some components that are made from real food, like bananas or nuts, for example. This term does not guarantee a healthful product.
|No added sugar
|The product has no sugars added during processing and no ingredients that contain sugar (e.g., jam). This is generally a good thing, but it doesn’t mean that the product is necessarily healthy. For example, a cracker made with white flour and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil could carry this claim.
|The product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.
|Gluten-free means the product does not contain wheat, rye, barley, Kamut, spelt, triticale, or farro. For people with celiac or gluten sensitivity, this is important. But keep in mind that many gluten-free foods are highly processed and may contain refined gluten-free flours, unhealthy fats, added sugars, and salt.
|This means the food does not contain animal products — which is good news for a lot of people who want to steer clear of meat and dairy. But keep in mind that there is plenty of “vegan junk food,” and that sugary soft drinks are vegan — so don’t assume vegan equals healthy.
|In the United States, if a food has less than 0.5 grams of artificial trans fats in a serving, the food label can read 0 grams trans fats. Since 2018, all foods sold in the US have by law had to meet this designation. So putting it on the label means, effectively, nothing at all. But in reality, a product with a very small serving size could contain 0.4 grams of trans fats per serving. So if you ate 3 servings, you could still wind up theoretically having consumed 1.2 grams of trans fat that wouldn’t show on the label.
|Made with whole grains
|This means that at least one of the grains used in the product is whole. But most of the grains could still be refined with a small amount of whole grain oats added, and the manufacturer could then say, “made with whole grains.” So this claim doesn’t necessarily mean much.
|This just tells you that a product is made with more than one type of grain. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the grains are whole or healthy.
Growing Methods & Certification Labels
In addition to the permissions allowed by government regulations, food companies can get many certifications for their products. Some, like the USDA organic appellation, are granted by governmental organizations, while others are managed by third parties.
The problem is, anyone can create a certification for any purpose and ask food companies to pay to display it on their products. For example, if I wanted to (which I don’t), I could design an “Ocean Approved” logo and charge frozen food manufacturers to put it on their boxes of frozen veggies. Therefore, it’s useful to know some of the most important and reliable accrediting bodies and their logos to give you confidence in their oversight.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies produce as organic if it is grown without the use of prohibited substances, including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic products must also be free of bioengineered (i.e., GMO) ingredients.
The USDA isn’t the only guarantor of organic purity. Oregon Tilth Certified Organic and Certified CCOF Organic are two popular third-party organic certifiers that have their own labels. These organic labels will sometimes appear on a package in addition to the USDA Certified Organic label, as long as the product meets the USDA organic labeling requirements. Both of these certifications are done by nonprofits.
The largest third-party certifier is Quality Assurance International (QAI), which is a for-profit corporation. Due perhaps to conflicts of interest (food producers pay QAI for its certification), the company has certified many products that may not be truly organic.
Whole Grains & Gluten-Free Certifications
Many consumers avoid gluten, either by choice or for medical necessity. That’s where the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) comes in. The GFCO is a nonprofit that independently verifies that food products are sourced, processed, and packaged in facilities that are completely gluten-free. In addition to audits and paper trails, the GFCO tests products for traces of gluten.
There’s also a seal for those who can and do eat gluten-containing and gluten-free grains. Choosing whole grain products over fractionated grains that are missing fiber and nutrients is an important part of a healthy diet. But food labeling rules make it easy for manufacturers to fudge whether a product contains 100% whole grains, using phrases like “contains whole grains” (which can technically mean, “Hey, there’s a single groat of oat flour in this cracker”) or “multigrain” (which just means there’s more than one kind of flour in the product). The Whole Grains Council offers a 100% Whole Grain certification to help you quickly identify breads, rolls, crackers, and desserts that are truly made from whole grains.
Pesticide & GMO-Free Certifications
The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization whose logo is an orange butterfly hovering over a green checkmark in the shape of two leaves, helps you avoid bioengineered ingredients in food.
And the Detox Project certification indicates that products are free from the world’s most popular herbicide, glyphosate (sold under the trade name “Roundup”). Glyphosate is a known endocrine disruptor and probable carcinogen, so it’s probably a good thing to keep out of your food and your body. It’s also potentially responsible for significant environmental damage, including biodiversity loss that can compromise the resilience of natural systems.
Rather than oversee the entire supply chain, this nonprofit works with a laboratory that measures the amount of Roundup residue in foods — single ingredients sold to food manufacturers, and finished products for consumers.
Ethical Food Labels
A Rainforest Alliance certification signals that the product supports positive social, economic, and environmental stewardship. In addition to protecting rainforests from destruction, the alliance also focuses on human rights and fair wages for farmers and farmworkers.
Fair Trade Certified is another certification dedicated to ending poverty in the global food supply chain. It recognizes brands and products that price their products and share the profits to ensure a safety net for vulnerable farmers, which is especially significant when commodity prices plummet. Buying Fair Trade Certified food items generally means you’re patronizing companies that forbid child labor and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.
And 1% for the Planet is a certification that signifies the companies it recognizes are putting their money where their green marketing is by funneling at least 1% of their profits into environmental philanthropy.
Dates on Food Packaging
Most foods on supermarket shelves have been processed in ways that extend their life spans: by killing things that can hasten spoilage (like bacteria), adding stabilizers and preservatives, and sealing them in airtight and watertight containers. While some of these items can remain viable for decades, their quality and safety can degrade over time.
That’s why food labels often include information about shelf life. But packaging dates have to do with quality, rather than making recommendations about food safety. These are rarely mandated by federal law (some US states institute their own requirements), and instead are typically determined by the food manufacturer. It makes good business sense, as there’s more money to be made in products that expire and have to be replaced than in the saltines you can put by when the baby is born and break out at their college graduation (not that I recommend this custom, but you get the idea).
Sell by, Use by, and Best by Dates
To keep things confusing, there are three different dates commonly included on food labels:
- Sell-by date: The last date the item should be on the shelf for purchase. After this, it’s typically tossed into a dumpster, although some supermarkets and grocery stores are beginning to try other options, including composting (when appropriate) or donating to food banks.
- Best-by date: The last date for the best flavor and quality. This is pretty subjective, as you can imagine.
- Use-by date: Beyond this date, the product is at risk of deteriorating to the point of being unsafe to consume. It’s the most important of the three and applies to highly perishable products like fresh meats, milk, poultry, and salad blends — all examples of foods that can pose health risks when they get too old.
Most foods can still be eaten safely after the expiration date, though how long after depends on the product and how it’s been stored. Judging quality and freshness for yourself, rather than tossing food as soon as the clock strikes midnight at the end of the best-by date, is one way to minimize food waste. Here are two more articles that provide additional strategies for cutting the amount of food you throw out:
- How To Reduce Food Waste
- You Have More Power to Reduce Food Waste Than You Think! 17 Things You Can Do to Take a Bite Out of This Massive Global Problem
In the US, the Nutrition Facts label is overseen by the FDA. It first appeared in the US in the early 1990s, following the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 — legislation that was enacted to help consumers make informed food choices quickly. It undergoes periodic revision — the latest as of this writing occurred in 2016.
Nutrition Facts Label
Most packaged foods and beverages require a Nutrition Facts section. At the top of the Nutrition Facts label, you’ll find the total number of servings in the container and the food or beverage serving size. Serving size is obviously subjective, as you would have been able to see if you had ever caught me eating potato chips from the bag in my younger days.
The serving size on the label is based on the amount of food that a person may typically eat at one time. It’s not a recommendation of how much to eat, nor necessarily a warning against eating more. Because the actual amount of a food a person will eat as a serving is so subjective and individual, there’s a danger that “big eaters” will misread the entire label.
Some products that are often consumed in their entirety — like pints of ice cream — must have two columns. The first lists calories and nutrients for a single serving, while the second gives the same information for the entire container.
Macronutrients and Nutrient Density
After calories, the label reports the amount of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, fiber, total sugars, and added sugars per serving. If you eat two servings, double each of these numbers.
And while monitoring the number of calories in a food can be meaningful for those seeking to gain control over their weight, that’s not the whole story. You also want to pay attention to the nutrient density of the foods you eat — that is, the amount of beneficial nutrients delivered per calorie. For example, a single Oreo has 53 calories, with barely a useful nutrient in sight. A large baked sweet potato, by contrast, might deliver three times as many calories. The difference is, the sweet potato also provides fiber and a gamut of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Percent Daily Value
The rightmost column of the Nutrition Facts portion of the label gives you the percent of Daily Value (DV) of that particular food component. Most labels carry an asterisked explanation such as, “The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories per day is used as general nutrition advice.” In that light, a good rule of thumb is that 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low, while 20% or more is high. Look for foods that are high in the good stuff, such as fiber, and low in the bad stuff, like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. (To discover ways to cut sugar out of your diet without sacrificing sweetness or joy, check out our article on sugar and sugar substitutes.)
Micronutrients on Food Labels
Next in the Nutrition Facts section is the nutrients section, indicating the DVs of various micronutrients, including vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. For most people, aiming for 100% of the DV of each of these micronutrients every day from food is a good goal. Some foods are fortified with vitamin D, calcium, iron, or other compounds, and this may help you reach the mark. But fortification isn’t exactly the same as getting your nutrients from food — it’s more like adding some vitamins and minerals to your food, which may or may not be a good thing.
Ingredients List on Food Labels
While the Nutrition Facts on food labels contain important data, it doesn’t tell you what specifically you are eating. That information comes from the ingredient list, which shares each ingredient in the product by its common or usual name. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The first three ingredients generally make up the bulk of the product.
To help ensure that the product you are buying is what the scientific mainstream considers healthy, here are some things to look for.
- Healthy, whole food ingredients are at the top of the list.
- Whole grains such as oats, wheat, Kamut, or spelt rather than “wheat flour” or “bleached flour” (both of which are also known as white flour) as one or more of the first ingredients.
- A short ingredients list filled with words you recognize (as opposed to chemical names worthy of the finals of the National Spelling Bee).
Ingredients to Avoid
Avoid foods with natural or artificial colors and flavors, added nitrates and nitrites, MSG, artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose, and preservatives such as sodium benzoate.
Beware of foods containing shortening, lard, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, or other hard fats. Also, watch out for added sugars, often listed by sneaky names such as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, or glucose. Because they don’t want to list sugar as one of the top two or three ingredients in a product, manufacturers will often break it into several different kinds of sugars so they appear later in the list.
It’s especially important to read the ingredients list if someone in your family has a food allergy. As we’ve seen, food labels must include the ingredients that are in the product. Recent rules now require food makers to clearly state on food labels whether the product contains or is made in a facility that also processes any of these common food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.
Always Read the Label!
Food labels include a lot of information, and as a consumer, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what they mean. Food packages can also be misleading as many widely used terms aren’t regulated. Big food companies and marketing departments often use nice-sounding words to make a product sound good without painting the whole picture. They often focus on what isn’t in the food — such as “low-fat” or “sugar-free,” but what matters most is what is in the food.
We hope you find this guide to decoding food labels and health claims useful, so you can know which are a load of marketing hype and which have real meaning. After all, you deserve the ability to make the healthiest choices for yourself, your loved ones, and your world.
And keep in mind that some of the healthiest foods on the planet, like fresh fruits and vegetables, or bulk whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, may not have any labels. In fact, the lack of a label is often a ringing endorsement of a food’s potential to enhance your health!
Tell us in the comments:
- Do you pay attention to food labels?
- What words or certifications do you look for on food packaging?
- How important to you is reading the Nutrition Facts and ingredients list on packaged foods?
Feature Image: iStock.com/fcafotodigital