What Should I Know About Food Labeling?

Margo Upson

The history of food labeling dates back to 1924, when the Supreme Court ruled that food packages were not allowed to contain untrue claims about the food. The requirement for nutritional labeling was introduced in 1990 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One of the most important things to know about food labels is how to read and understand what the labels say.

Knowing how to read a food label can help customers save money and eat healthier.
Knowing how to read a food label can help customers save money and eat healthier.

The United States food labeling system was designed by the FDA to educate consumers about the nutritional value of the foods they were buying. The goal was to provide a way for consumers to track their daily intake of fats, calories, sugars, nutrients, and more. These food facts were written on a fairly easy to read chart, which became the food label.

Unlike organic options, the majority of non-organic foods have been genetically modified.
Unlike organic options, the majority of non-organic foods have been genetically modified.

Food labels have four basic areas. The first, right at the top, lists the serving size and the number of serving sizes in the whole container. This is also the area that lists the amount of calories per serving, and the number of calories from fat. The serving size is perhaps the most important part of the food label, as it is what all of the other figures are based on. A serving of chips, for example, may only have 100 calories, but if you eat more than one serving, you are getting more than 100 calories.

The second part of the label lists the ingredients that should be limited. These ingredients include fats, sugars, cholesterol, and sodium. The amount of the ingredient in one serving is listed by weight and also as a percentage of the recommended maximum daily amount. The third part lists the good nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, that can be found in the food. These are nutrients that a person needs to survive, and they are listed with the percentage of the daily value (DV) that one serving of the food provides.

The fourth section, referred to by some as the footnote, states that the facts on the food label are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, the recommended amount of calories for a reasonably active adult. Underneath that are three columns: one listing many of the ingredients that should only be enjoyed in small amounts, the second listing the maximum daily values of these ingredients for a person on a 2,000 calorie diet, and the third listing the same information for a person on a 2,500 calorie diet. The bottom few ingredients listed are different, as they list the minimum amounts that should be consumed.

Learning to read food labeling takes time and practice. Comparing two similar types of food to see which is the most nutritious takes time, even for experienced shoppers. There are different food labeling methods being developed and tried in select markets that make reading food labels easier for shoppers who are in a hurry. One system, called NuVal, rates foods on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the best. This makes comparing similar items, such as cereal, much easier than reading though a long label, although the traditional label will still be on the side of the box.

Other food labeling may claim that foods are heart healthy, low fat, or that they contain special nutrients. While there are regulations controlling these claims, consumers should still read the food label. Some of these labels can be confusing. For example, something labeled as "no sugar added" does not mean that the product is sugar-free, only that no sugar was added when the product was being made. Any sugar that was in the ingredients, such as the sugar in fruit, is still there.

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