How to be a smart consumer when it comes to packaged foods.
Updated: Nov 15
You know that saying, don’t judge at face value? The same can be applied when it comes to reading and understanding front of package food labels, when trying to make informed choices about the foods and beverages we purchase and eat.
Using only the front of a package on a food or beverage option, to make informed choices, leaves us missing out on some pretty key and crucial things!
To be a smart consumer when it comes to purchasing packaged beverages/foods, keep the following things in mind:
1) Don’t judge a product at face value: look at the whole package, including front, sides and back paneling.
The only thing that is required on the front of package labeling is a statement of what is in the package(statement of identity), and how much it weighs, everything else that is placed on the front of the package is voluntary information.
Manufacturers will often put messages that they think are of value to consumers or that they think they may want to hear. This may include:
Health claims describe a relationship between a food substance (a food, food component, or dietary supplement ingredient), and reduced risk of a disease or health-related condition. An example of a health claim may look like: “Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a disease associated with many factors”.
Health claims are reviewed and regulated by the FDA. There are 12 approved health claims that manufacturers may use on packages.
Nutrient content claims
Nutrient content claims describe the level of a nutrient in the product. Words such as “free”, “high”, and “low”, may be utilized. You may also see the comparison of a level of a nutrient in a food to that of another food, with words such as “more”, “reduced”, and “light”.
Examples you may be familiar with seeing are, “Contains 100% Vitamin C”, ”low sodium”, or "reduced fat".
Nutrient content claims are reviewed and regulated by the FDA. There are specific guidelines for using nutrient content claims on packages.
Structure/function claims may describe the role of a nutrient or dietary ingredient intended to affect the normal structure or function of the human body, an example of this might be, "calcium builds strong bones". Structure/function claims may also characterize the way in which a nutrient or a dietary ingredient plays in order to maintain such structure or function, an example of this may look like, "fiber maintains bowel regularity," or "antioxidants maintain cell integrity." General well-being claims describe general well-being from consumption of a particular nutrient or dietary ingredient.
The FDA does not require pre-approval for the use of structure/function claims. The FDA does not require conventional food manufacturers to notify them of their use of structure/function claims.
Third party certifications
Third party certifications may include environment/sustainability, animal welfare, health/nutrition, human rights, religious, or local business promotion certifications.
Label certifications are offered through independent third-party organizations with their own specific standards.
Think "Certified Gluten Free", "Certified Vegan", "Fair Trade Certified", "Animal Welfare-Approved", "Non-GMO Project Verified", etc.
2) Be sure to look at the sides and back of the label, so that you can make an informed decision, based on factors that are important to you.
Things that may be important to consider:
The Nutrition Facts Label
This just tells you what nutrition this product is offering you, based on the standardized nutrition label.
Nutrients that need to be listed on a standardized nutrition label include: calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, total sugars, added sugars, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. These nutrients will be broken down by one individual serving size.
Some companies may choose to show a dual display and include nutrition information for the whole package, or an as prepared per serving option too, i.e. cereal and cereal and milk, or, dry muffin mix and as prepared baked muffin(according to manufacturer's recipe and instructions).
Some manufacturers may voluntarily choose to include other nutrients found naturally within their product. They will need to follow specific label and formatting guidelines, in order to declare such nutrients found within their product.
If a product is enriched with certain nutrients, vitamins and minerals, if the label makes a nutrition claim about certain nutrients found in their product, or if their advertising or product literature provides information connecting certain nutrients to their food, it is necessary for the manufacturer to include information for these nutrients on their nutrition facts panel.
The percent daily value shows how much of a nutrient in one serving of food contributes to an overall approximate daily intake. Using the percent daily value(DV), is an easy way to gauge whether a product is high or low in a particular nutrient, or, it can also be used to compare nutrients of similar products. A general guideline is:
5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low
20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high
Ingredients are listed by weight, starting with the most prominent ingredient first, and descending in order by weight.
Be familiar with terms of names of ingredients that are important to you. For example:
Added sugars may include: agave nectar, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, date sugar, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt sugar, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sorghum syrup, sucrose, turbinado sugar
Non-nutritive sweeteners may include: aspartame(NutraSweet® and Equal®), acesulfame k (Sweet One®), sucralose(Splenda®). neotame, advantame, saccharin(Sweet’N Low®). steviol glycosides from the stevia plant(Truvia®, PureVia®, Enliten®), extracts from monk fruit/Swingle fruit/luo han guo(Nectresse®, Monk Fruit in the Raw®, PureLo®), thaumatin(Talin®)
Voluntary Information/Certifications that are Shared:
Ethics that may align with your values:
How things are grown, raised, ingredient information, whether it is fair trade, etc.
3) Above all you have to make the best choice for you, based on things that are important to you.
Here are the some things I look for when when investigating a packaged product:
1) Taste, quality, and appeal
2) Nutrition and ingredients
3) How this product aligns with my ethics/values, i.e how it was produced, raised, etc.
5) How does this fit into my overall lifestyle?
Word of caution: don’t get too caught up with one packaged product, one ingredient, one nutrient level, etc. Zoom out and think about the overall picture for how this particular product fits into your overall eating habits and lifestyle.
What factors are most important to you when it comes to purchasing packaged beverages and foods?
If you need more help or guidance, with feeling confident in your ability to read and understand beverage and food labels, please know, I am always here to help support you.
If you would like to learn more about food labels check out:
The Labels Unwrapped Project: an initiative housed under The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems of Vermont Law School, "The Labels Unwrapped project was launched to address the frustration and confusion caused by food labels".
For more information on reading nutrition labels, check out:
How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label, a resource provided by the FDA.
Interactive Nutrition Facts Label, a resource provided by the FDA.
Resources, not referenced/linked above: