by Brandy Abalos

Food labels contain a lot of information in a small space. They can be confusing and overwhelming. Understanding food labels is essential to make informed decisions about food.

What Information Is on a Food Label?

The first step in navigating a food label is understanding what is required to be on it by law. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that several mandatory components must be included on a food label, including:

  • Product name
  • Net weight or volume
  • Manufacturer or distributor name and address
  • List of ingredients
  • Nutrition facts
  • Allergy information

Some of these required sections, especially nutrition facts, have a lot of details that must be considered to make informed choices about what you eat.

Things to Know About Product Names

One might think a product name would be straightforward. However, strict regulations exist on what products can be named according to their makeup. A product name should accurately reflect the product and not be misleading. For example, a product with “blueberry-flavored” in its name should contain blueberries or blueberry flavoring.

How to Use Net Weight or Volume

A product’s net weight or volume states how much food is in a package. This information is crucial when determining servings per package and nutritional content per serving. It also helps to compare products to determine the best value.

Manufacturer or Distributor Name and Address

The FDA requires that the label of all food products include the manufacturer or distributor’s name and address. This information allows consumers to contact them with questions about the product or if there is a problem with the food item.

More Than Just a List of Ingredients

The list of ingredients is one of the most important parts of the food label. It provides essential information for people with allergies and food sensitivities. The ingredients are listed in order by weight, with the ingredients the food contains the most of listed first. The last ingredient has the lowest weight. Ingredients should always be listed by their common or usual name rather than a scientific or technical name. Some companies use both names to clarify what is used to make their product.

Nutrition Facts to Guide Decisions

The nutrition facts listed on food labels are there to help consumers make informed decisions about what they eat. They provide detailed information about the nutrient content of the food. Some of the nutrients listed on all food labels include:

  • Calories
  • Fat
  • Sodium
  • Carbohydrates
  • Cholesterol
  • Fiber
  • Sugars
  • Protein
  • Vitamins and minerals

Nutrients are typically listed according to how much is contained in each serving. They may also include a percentage of daily values for each nutrient. The percentage of daily value is based on a 2,000-calorie diet established by the FDA. Anything under 5% is typically considered low, and anything over 20% is considered high. Keep that in mind when selecting “low-sodium” or “low-fat” items.

What’s a Serving Size?

A serving size is the weight, volume or amount of food typically eaten in one sitting. Although you may eat more than one serving in a sitting, the information on the nutrition label is geared to that serving size. All other information on the nutrition label is based on the serving size, so you’ll need to know it to decide how much of each nutrient you are consuming.

Allergy Information Should Be Clearly Indicated

All food items should clearly indicate any potential allergen information, especially if they are related to the “eight major food allergens,” These allergens include milk, wheat, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts and soybeans. People with food allergies and intolerances must have this information. Without it, the manufacturer or distributor may be liable for adverse reactions that occur due to failure to warn customers.

Nutrient Content and Health Claims

Many food labels have claims that target consumers trying to eat healthily. Nutrient content claims may include “high fiber” or “low sodium.” The FDA has specific guidelines for the use of these claims. For example, a “high fiber” item must contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. Some foods make health claims as well. For example, a food label might claim that the contents “may reduce the risk of heart disease.” The FDA also regulates these claims and requires manufacturers to use information supported by scientific evidence.

Understanding Food Labels Is Essential

To work towards a healthier diet, it is crucial to understand food labels. The nutritional information on a food label should be clear and consistent with FDA regulations. Making food choices will be much easier for those navigating food labels.