Most of us are looking for more healthy food options at the supermarket, but better nutrition isn’t always clear from a food label. The FDA updated its food labeling rules in 2016 in order to make this information easier to read but there are still plenty of marketing buzzwords left to confuse you. Here’s how to get better at reading food labels, so you can spot the difference between useful information and empty advertising claims.
How Useful Are Food Labels?
Food labels are there to provide consumers with information about the food that they purchase. But not all labels are regulated, and many have little to meaning at all. For example, some food labels suggest higher animal welfare on farms without any real oversight, whereas other terms are simply not governed and can be used freely to mislead consumers.
What Is the Easiest Way To Read a Food Label?
The following food label components are required, and provide important information.
Serving Size and Servings per Container
A food label’s serving size is supposed to represent how much people usually consume of the product in one sitting. Serving sizes are shown in commonly used measurements such as cups, number of individual pieces or teaspoons. The servings per container tells you how many of those average-size servings to expect. But these are not always accurate since they are often determined by weight rather than a literal serving count.
Percent Daily Values
The percent daily values listed on nutrition labels are based on the suggested amount of each nutrient that a person eating 2,000 calories a day should consume. If a product contains 15 percent carbohydrates, that means that it contains 15 percent of the carbohydrates that someone eating 2,000 calories a day should aim for. Yet because many people eat more or less than 2,000 calories a day, for these people the percentage will not be accurate. In order to determine the exact breakdown of nutrients your body needs, consider discussing your diet with your doctor or a registered dietitian.
Fat and Sodium
The amounts of fat and sodium in products are two of the items required to be listed on nutrition labels. They are given as percent daily values based on a 2,000-calorie diet, and also by mass.
On a nutrition label, the amount of dietary fiber is found as a subcategory of carbohydrates. The category of carbohydrates is broken down into two subcategories: sugars and fiber. These quantities are also included in the total amount of carbohydrates.
Sugar and Added Sugar
The amount of sugar in a product can be found under carbohydrates on a food label, including total and added sugars. Total sugars include both naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit, and sugar that has been added during processing. The added sugar label includes only the sugar that has been added to the product.
How To Read the Ingredient List on a Food Label
The most important thing to know about the list of ingredients is that items are listed by weight. If a label lists water, flour and salt in that order it means that the product contains more water by weight than flour, and more salt than flour, and so on.
It’s also important to note that the most common allergens must be indicated. They can often be easily identified in bold in the ingredients list or listed directly afterward.
What Are Three Things You Should Understand on a Food Label?
What Do Food Labels Really Mean?
In addition to the nutrient and ingredient information on food labels, labels often contain claims about how the food was produced. Some of these are more accurate than others.
Certified organic foods have been produced in accordance with federal regulations for organic farming. The most significant guideline is that synthetic chemicals are generally not used in the production process, and there are also certain animal welfare requirements.
Country of Origin Labels
The U.S. first required country of origin labels, or COOL, on agricultural products in 2002. In 2016, the federal government relaxed country of origin food label standards by exempting beef and pork muscle cuts, ground beef and pork.
Treated With Irradiation
During processing, some foods are exposed to radiation to help keep them fresh for longer and improve food safety. Federal guidelines require that irradiated food be labeled with the radura symbol. Note there is no evidence that irradiated foods pose any health threat.
All meat sold in the United States must be inspected by the Food Safety Inspection Service, with few exceptions. This means that an inspector is present in a slaughter or packaging facility, not that every individual cut of meat is inspected.
What Do You Need To Know About These Food Labels?
Many food labels can be deceptive. This is especially the case for animal welfare labels, as the government does not strictly enforce product claims.
Cage-free eggs are a popular alternative to eggs laid by hens housed in battery cages. However, these food labels allow producers a lot of flexibility due to the lack of concrete federal guidelines about “cage-free” eggs. There are third-party certifications for cage-free chickens that have specific requirements beyond standard industry practices and are a better indicator of improved chicken welfare.
The USDA does not require farm visits in order to label beef as grass-fed. Instead, farmers are required to send documentation to regulators. In addition, the grass-fed label pertains to the animal’s diet but does not suggest that they were raised on an open pasture or indicate any other welfare standards.
The non-profit Consumer Reports rates the “no antibiotics” food label as poor, citing the absence of any verification process for farms that claim to not use antibiotics on their animals. Antibiotic use on farms has been steadily increasing since 2017, leading to rising levels of antibiotic resistance.
Hormones are naturally occurring in animals, which means it’s impossible to raise meat with no hormones at all. The U.S. prohibits adding hormones during production of pigs, poultry and bison, so the phrase “no added hormones” is essentially meaningless for those products. Beef can be labeled with “no hormones administered” however, based on disclosures provided to the USDA.
The term pasture-raised is not governed by the USDA, so food labels bearing this term have to be accompanied by a description of what the term means, or be shown alongside third-party certification indicating that a certain definition has been used that can be found on the website of the certifying body.
Which Food Labels Might Be Misleading?
Many food labels are not subject to federal regulation so it’s important to be wary of these claims.
In 2016, Congress passed a law requiring USDA to create a mandatory disclosure standard for bioengineered foods. Under this standard, the agency requires food labels for products containing ingredients bred with a kind of technology called transgenesis, a modern breeding technique where researchers add a gene from one organism to another to enhance its qualities, like drought or pest resistance.
Ultimately all crop breeding is a form of genetic engineering — transgenesis was simply developed as a faster and more effective method. More recently, gene editing techniques like CRISPR have made it possible to tweak crops even more quickly and efficiently, and also to evade the bioengineered requirement as these foods are not transgenic products.
The “non-GMO” label is not regulated and is not a government label, but is an independent certification created by a non-profit that advocates against GMOs. Many foods like seedless watermelon and cotton candy grapes are genetically engineered yet technically “non-GMO” — that’s because genetically modified organisms or bioengineered foods typically only covers transgenic foods, not other types of modern plant breeding.
Meat, dairy or eggs labeled non-GMO means the animals themselves were not bred using transgenic technology, and in some cases were not fed with transgenic feed, depending on the certification requirements. Yet almost all of the animal-derived food that we consume today has been genetically engineered in some way, typically by selective breeding for traits desirable to industrial meat companies, like fast growth or docile behavior.
While there are no federal guidelines defining “free-range,” livestock producers are permitted to use these labels if they submit paperwork illustrating the farm’s setup meeting certain requirements. No farm visit is necessary.
Federal agencies offer minimal guidance in defining the term “fresh” on food labels. While it cannot be used to imply that processed foods have not been processed, it can be used on some foods that are generally known to be processed, such as pasteurized milk. “Fresh” does not preclude the application of waxes, post-harvest pesticides or acid washes.
Natural and Naturally Raised
Many foods labeled “natural” often boast a long list of artificial ingredients. That’s because there is no federal guidance on its use to describe food. The term is essentially meaningless marketing.
“Pasture-raised” is another term not directly defined by the USDA, and is instead administered by other certifying bodies with varying standards.
When It Comes to Reading Food Labels, What’s Most Important?
What’s most important on a food label depends on you, the consumer. If you’re looking to shift to a more sustainable diet, read ingredients or look for whole plant-based foods to up your intake of mostly plants over meat and dairy products. If you’re most interested in foods that have not been produced using synthetic fertilizers, then organic products might be for you. If you’re interested in eggs from chickens that live on pastures then you should identify a specific third-party certifier, such as A Greener World. If you’re mostly interested in avoiding certain ingredients then be sure to check the ingredients label thoroughly.
What You Can Do
Every year food companies spend about $14 billion on advertising to convince you to purchase their products. By boosting your knowledge of food labels, you can improve your nutrition literacy and your ability to purchase healthy food.
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.