How to Decode a Food Label

June 25, 2021

In the 19th Century, food shopping was a gamble. Tins, packets and containers tended to lack ingredient labels, let alone nutrition information. With no obligation to tell people what was in their products or what it meant for their health, manufacturers inserted all sorts of unpleasant substances.

As the journalist Deborah Blum writes in her book The Poison Squad, milk sellers in the US once added chalk, plaster dust, or dye to make their watered-down, bacteria-ridden batches look more palatable. Other food-makers sprinkled copper sulphate – a garden pesticide that can burn the skin – into tinned vegetables to make them appear greener.

To extend shelf life, some manufacturers even added formaldehyde or borax – a laundry detergent – to meat and dairy products. Meanwhile in England, arsenic was used to colour green sugary sweets, while lead was added to red or yellow ones, as well as for colouring cheese.

To force more stringent labelling regulations on a reluctant food industry, it took decades of lobbying and research. To bolster the case, one US scientist even staged a controlled experiment to feed meals of contaminated food to a group of willing young men – Blum’s “poison squad” – to demonstrate that it could harm their health. Many of the squad’s healthy volunteers fell ill, a consequence that US lawmakers could no longer ignore.

More than a century later, processed foods now come packaged with an abundance of information about their content. But that doesn’t mean that this labelling is always easy to decipher. Peer closer at a packet or box, and you’ll find various chemicals, codes, weights and percentages, while the front features statements and health claims that are not as straightforward as they first appear. Are there any tricks to deciphering a food label?

To begin, it’s worth acknowledging that food regulations differ around the world, so it would require more than a single article to describe every country’s labelling conventions. The UN and WHO’s Codex Alimentarius provides an international set of labelling standards, but this “food code” is voluntary, and is applied in different ways around the world. When it comes to nutrition labelling, most of the world’s major economies make it mandatory, including the US, India, China, Japan, Australia and EU members. But for some it is voluntary unless a health claim is made, such as in Turkey, Singapore or South Africa.

Generally though, most labels feature an ingredient list and some information about the product’s nutritional value: calories, fat, sugars, salt and so on. In recent decades, manufacturers have also started adding health and wellbeing benefits, aware that it helps sell their products.

All clear and obvious? Not quite.

Understanding ingredients

For starters, consider the ingredient list. What manufacturers don’t spell out on the front is that these are listed from most predominant to least predominant by weight. So far, so obvious, you might say. But it does lead to some labelling sleight of hand. For instance, if you look closer at a hazelnut spread label, past the pictures of nuts on the front, you’ll notice that the first (and therefore biggest) ingredient is actually sugar, often followed by oil.

You can find a similar pattern with breakfast cereal: even if a box advertises “wholegrain wheat” in big letters on the front, the ingredients often list sugar in a close second place. Some brands of frosted flakes, for example, have 37g of sugar for every 100g of cereal. That’s roughly the same ratio as in a chocolate chip cookie.

A few, like the artificial colour E122 in cakes and sweets, may have adverse effects on children prone to hyperactivity

Lower down the ingredient list, you’ll also come across names that are less recognisable than oats, sugar or nuts. In the EU, manufacturers use a system of short codes to describe additives called “E numbers”, which over the years have acquired a controversial – and occasionally undeserved – reputation as dangerous and mysterious chemicals. A few, like the artificial colour E122 in cakes and sweets, may have adverse effects on children prone to hyperactivity. But others are good for you, or at least harmless: E300 is vitamin C, E948 is oxygen and E160c is paprika.

In the US, there is no such coding, and such additives are described with their chemical name. So, on a US label you’d read “sodium caseinate”, rather than “E469”. On the surface, that would seem clearer, but even that convention is a little obtuse about what the stuff actually is: sodium caseinate is used in foods like sausages or bread, and is the main ingredient in coffee creamer, but neither its E number nor its chemical name would tell you that it’s a protein derived from milk.

Another sodium-based difference between countries to be aware of is that the US lists sodium levels on its products (specifically its nutritional labels, which we’ll cover next), whereas the EU lists salt. Salt may be a type of sodium, but sodium is a category that also includes the caseinate additive we just mentioned, as well as other ingredients like bicarbonate of soda.

Nutrition facts

As your eye roves around a processed food packet, you will probably also come across some form of nutritional information too.

Some nations, like the UK, have a traffic light system for nutrition that expresses how healthy a processed food is in terms of fat, saturates, sugars and salt, using the colours red, amber and green. For example, a processed oven meal might have 7.7g of saturated fat, and so be labelled red. In some (but not all) cases, it also comes with a percentage, in this case 39%.

The colour scheme was designed to be intuitively easy to understand, but how the percentages are worked out may not be immediately obvious. The 39% in that meal is calculated using the “Reference Intake”, which is the maximum recommended amount. In Europe, this value has gradually been replacing “Guideline Daily Amounts” (GDA) on labelling, which differed by gender and age.

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Related: Watch Out For E-Numbers; Some Can Be Harmful!

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