Understand Everything About Food Labels In 9 Minutes

Food Label: A food label is the ID of the product giving us information about what's present inside the pack & different from Nutrition Labels

July 20, 2022

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Have You Tried Searching Online For Images On Food Labels But Got Nutrition Labels Instead? Both These Terms Seem Similar, Even Online Search Engines Cannot Distinguish Them. But Food Labels And Nutrition Labels Are Different.  Yes, That’s True! They Both Convey Different Stories To The Consumers Reading Them. However, They Are Also Similar As They Both Help Consumers Make Smart And Informed Choices. The Main Reason As To Why Most Consumers Are Confused In Selecting The Right Product Is Because They Tend To READ The FOOD LABEL Hastily And Fail To UNDERSTAND The NUTRITION LABEL Correctly.

Food Labels

The internationally accepted definition of a food label as given by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is “any tag, brand, mark, pictorial or other descriptive matter, written, printed, stenciled, marked, embossed or impressed on, or attached to, a container of food.” In other words, a food label is like the ID of the product giving us information about what is present inside the pack. It also gives us information about the shelf life, storage conditions, instructions to use, manufacturers, list of ingredients, additives and allergens of the food product. 

Nutrition Labels

Nutrition labels as defined by the Codex Alimentarius Commission are “a description intended to inform the consumer of the nutritional properties of a food.” It is present on the food label or package in the form of a table and includes Nutrient Declaration, Serving Size and % Daily Value.

The Difference between Food Labels and Nutrition Labels

Although Food Label and Nutrition Label sounds synonymous, there are differences in both these terms. Their intent however, is to bridge the gap between the producers and the consumers and bring more transparency in the food labelling system. It is therefore important to have both these displayed on the product. The Table below summarizes the differences between the two.

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It is therefore essential to READ and UNDERSTAND both the food and nutrition labels in order to make healthier food choices. 

General Requirements for a food label or food labelling

  • Every pre-packaged food should have a food label containing the information as mentioned in the regulations. 

  • The Regulations to be specified on the label shall be in English or Hindi in Devanagari writing.

  • Packaged food label should not be described or presented in any labelling ways that is false, misleading or deceptive or is probably going to make a wrong impression in regards to its character in any regard. 

  • Pre-packaged food label should be applied in such a way that they won't become separated from the container or the packaging material.

  • Printing or embossing on the food label should be clear, conspicuous, permanent and promptly readable by the consumer under general conditions of procurement and use.

  • When the container is enclosed by a wrapper, the wrapper shall convey the important information or the label on the container shall be clearly readable through the external wrapper and not covered by it.

Labelling of Pre-packaged Foods

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Every packaged food shall carry the following information on the label in addition to the General Labelling requirements specified above which includes;

1. The Name of Food

The name of the food will involve the trade name or depiction of food contained in the package. 

2. List of Ingredients

The name of the Ingredients present in the food product are displayed in the descending order of their formulation by weight or volume, all things considered, at the time of its production.

3. Nutritional information  

Dietary or nutritional Information/facts per 100 gm or 100ml or per serving of the food product shall be given on the label containing the accompanying-

  • Energy value shall be mentioned in kcal along with the amounts of protein (g), carbohydrate (g), Total Sugars (g), Added Sugars (g), Total fat (g), Saturated Fat (g), Trans fat (g), Cholesterol (mg) and Sodium (mg).

  • The amount of any other nutrient for which a nutrition or health claim is made is to be stated. 

  • The nutritional information may not be necessary, in the case of foods such as raw agricultural commodities, like spice and spice mixes, cereals, fresh or dry herbs, condiments, common salt, sugar, jaggery, or non–nutritive products eg. tea and coffee, packaged mineral and drinking water, alcoholic beverages or processed fruit and vegetables, pre-packaged assorted vegetables and products which contain single ingredients like pickle and papad.

  • In conditions where the foods are served for instant consumption eg. Meals served in hospitals, hotels or by various food services vendors or halwais shops, or food transported in bulk amounts that is not for direct sale in that formulation to consumers can be exempted from declaring their nutrition panel.

4. Declaration regarding Veg or Non veg 

  • Every packaged food should have a “Vegetarian” or “Non-Vegetarian” symbol and colour code as stipulated for the purpose to indicate that the product is Vegetarian Food or Non-Vegetarian food.

  • The symbol shall contain a filled circle with green colour for Vegetarian food and brown coloured triangle for Non-Vegetarian food.

  • There are specific sizes and measurements given in the regulations for the same.

5. Declaration regarding Food Additives 

  • The food additives appear in the ingredient list itself followed by the food ingredients. They are declared or recorded under the class titles which would be used together with the specific names or recognized international numerical identifications. Eg. Acidity Regulator, Anticaking Agent, Antifoaming Agent, etc.

  • The addition of colours and/or Flavours shall be displayed with the following statements in capital letters, just beneath the list of the ingredients on the label attached to any package of food. Eg. CONTAINS PERMITTED NATURAL COLOUR(S), CONTAINS ADDED FLAVOUR, CONTAINS PERMITTED SYNTHETIC FOOD COLOUR(S) AND ADDED FLAVOUR(S)

6. Manufacturer’s name and complete address  

  • The name and complete address of the manufacturer and the manufacturing unit shall be declared on every package of food.

  • If the manufacturing and the packaging units are at different places then also the name and complete address of the packing or bottling unit shall be mentioned on the package.

  • Where an article of food is imported into India, the package of food shall also carry the name and complete address of the importer in India and also the country of origin of the food item.

  • In case the food undergoes processing in a second country which changes its nature, the country in which the processing has taken place will be recorded as the country of origin for the labelling.

7. Net quantity 

  • Net quantity in terms of weight or volume or number of units, as the case may be, should be written on every packaged food product.

  • If a food is packaged in a liquid medium, then it should state the drained weight of the food as well. The “liquid medium” involves water, sugar and salt solutions, of fruit and vegetable juices or vinegar, either singly or in combination. 

  • The weight of the wrappers and packaging materials should be excluded while calculating the net quantity.

8. Batch/Lot/Code identification

  • A food label should also state the code number or batch number or lot number which acts as a mark of identification because of which the food can be traced back to the manufacturer and identified in the distribution.

9. Date of manufacture or packing/ Best Before and Use-by Date 

  • The date, month and year in which the commodity is manufactured, packed or pre-packed and its shelf-life period shall be given on the food label with the help of best before or use by date

10. Instructions for use 

  • Instructions for use, including reconstitution and storage conditions where ever applicable, shall be mentioned on the food label, if necessary, to ensure correct utilization of the food.

Also Read - What Is Food Traceability & Food Recall?

Reading Food Labels  

Food labels are key to the understanding of the constituents of food, its nutritional value, and correlation to our health and well-being. Food ingested works in our body in many ways; some to its benefit and some that must be checked. While a small part of the food label is fairly simple and straightforward, certain parts require a contextual understanding of the values and their actual meaning. 

Reading food labels is complex, and it is hard for consumers to understand the stated details. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to read and comprehend a food label

1. Turn the pack – the most vital information is at the back! 

The front of the pack health claims are often just the half truth about any product. They are often written in an attractive manner, to influence consumer purchase. Often products mention claims like low fat, high fibre in the front – only for us to realise that the product is high on sugar and sodium. 

The nutritional information table at the back, is where the story lies. Unfortunately, the section is usually overlooked or misunderstood. A detailed nutrient-wise information panel dissects the products and tells you exactly what you are eating.

2. Read the Ingredient List

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The ingredient list is one of the most critical parts of a food label. It gives you a list of items that constitute the product. Whilst reading the ingredient list, take care of the following points – 

  1. The ingredient list is written in descending order of quantities. The first 3-4 ingredients on the list pretty much sums up what the product is made up of.  Make note of the first 3 ingredients on the list – if the names include refined grains/flour, hydrogenated fat, or a type of sugar, then the product must be skipped. Select products that are made up of whole grains, pulses, nuts & seeds or fruit and vegetables largely. 

  2. Shorter the ingredient list, healthier the product. Go for products that are made in less than 10 ingredients.

  3. Look for ingredients on the label that you recognise and are familiar with. 

  4. Look out for masquerading ingredients – especially sugar and salt. Sugar is present in 70 different forms in packaged food products and one must be wary before you select any product blindly. 

Sodium is not only present in salt, but also in food additives like baking powder, baking soda, preservatives, flavour enhancers, sequestrants and more.  

3. Check the food additives below the ingredient list 

Food additives are substances that are added to food to maintain or improve the safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance of food. Additives are needed to ensure processed food remains safe and in good condition throughout its journey from factories or industrial kitchens, during transportation to warehouses and shops, and finally to consumers. 

The use of food additives is only justified when their use has a technological need, does not mislead consumers, and serves a well-defined technological function, such as to preserve the nutritional quality of the food or enhance the stability of the food. Food additives can be derived from plants, animals, or minerals, or they can be synthetic. 

Food additive classes are often declared together with their specific names or the INS (International Numbering System) codes.  While most food additives are listed under the ingredient list, special rules apply to flavourings, colourings and preservatives. 

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Please note, FSSAI mandates the use of approved flavouring agents (and other additives) only. So even if the label mentions ‘artificial flavouring substances’, they are safe to consume and possess no toxicity threat.     

Consumer choice is now beginning to tip in the favour of natural substances – be it flavour, colour, or any other additive. Clean label products, created without the use of artificial substances are manifesting an increase in consumer adoption. We are seeing an increasing number of consumers consciously choose products that are natural and sans any artificial additives. 

4. Nutrition Information Panel / Nutrition Label 

The nutrition information on the food label is a mandatory description intended to inform the consumer of the nutritional properties of the food product. Nutrition Information is often written per 100gm/100ml or per serve on the label. 

The nutrition information on the food label holds the most critical information about the product and can help you make healthier choices. 3 things that you MUST check on the nutrition information panel before you pick any product – 

a. Serving Size  

One serve is the amount of food customarily consumed per eating occasion, which is expressed in metric units or given in common household measures like tea spoon, table spoon, cup that is appropriate to the food. This will tell you how many servings are there in the pack. Serving sizes are standardised to enable us to compare similar food products. 

b. Beneficial vs Harmful Nutrients 

All nutrients declared on the nutrition label can be divided into 2 sections – beneficial nutrients and harmful nutrients. 

Beneficial nutrients are the nutrients that you must get more of – protein, dietary fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium. These nutrients are beneficial to the body and our health. 

On the other hand, harmful nutrients are the nutrients that you must limit or get less of – saturated fat, trans fat, total sugar, added sugar, sodium. Saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars are nutrients listed on the label that are directly associated with adverse health effects and non-communicable diseases. Follow one rule for these nutrients – lower the better! 

c. Daily Value - Per serve percentage (%) contribution to RDA 

While the nutrition information panel on Indian food labels are mostly written per 100gm/ml, FSSAI does suggest that brands must mention the nutrition information per serve and the per serve percentage (%) contribution of nutrients to their respective RDAs. Per serve percentage (%) is also known as Daily Value (%) and is calculated for a standard 2000-kcal diet. 

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5. Allergens 

Allergens are substances that cause an immune response (allergic response) in certain people, which could even be life-threatening in extreme cases. Foods containing one or more of the eight common allergens must be listed prominently on the label. Allergens are usually found below the list of ingredients. The common 8 allergens mandated for declaration by FSSAI are,

  1. Cereals containing gluten; i.e., wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt or their hybridized strains and their products

  2. Crustaceans

  3. Milk & Milk products;

  4. Eggs and egg products;

  5. Fish and fish products;

  6. Peanuts, Tree nuts and their products;

  7. Soybeans and their products;

  8. Sulphite in concentrations of 10mg/kg or more.

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6. Date Marking

You may see 3 types of date marking on your food product – ‘date of manufacture or packaging’, ‘Expiry/Use by’ or ‘Best before’. 

  1. Date of manufacture is the date on which the food product was manufactured and packaged. 

  2. Expiry/Use by date tells you how long the food will remain at its best quality and will not be fit for consumption post the date. This is often used in perishable products like milk, bread, etc. 

  3. Best Before date guarantees the quality of certain properties of the product to be effective up to this date. Once the date has passed, it may just lose its freshness, taste, aroma or nutrients, but it does not necessarily mean that the food is no longer safe to eat. The ‘best before’ date is often mistaken by consumers to be the same as the ‘expiry date’. Often foods that may have passed its ‘best before’ date go straight in the trash, though they would still be completely edible.

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The best way to not get tricked by food labels is to attempt reading and comprehending them. Understanding the food label is the key to making healthy food choices and stocking up your kitchen with food that positively impacts your health. The secret here is to look for a few data points that are most critical. 

If you find reading and comprehending food labels complex, you are not alone. 6 out of 10 consumers find food labels complex and 9 out of 10 consumers seek a simplified version of the food label. 

Also Read - Why Date Marking Essential On Food Product Labels?

References

1. Prinsloo, N., Van der Merwe, D., Bosman, M., & Erasmus, A. C. (2012). A critical review of the significance of food labelling during consumer decision making. Journal of Consumer Sciences, 40.

2. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food Labelling.

3. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. Product Standards. Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2020.

4. Food Safety And Standards (Food Products Standards And Food Additives) Regulations, 2011. 

5. The New Nutrition Facts Label: What's in it for you? U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

6. Food Additives Key Facts, World Health Organization, 2018.

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Saayma Rizvi (BSc in Food Science and Nutrition)

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