The Foodie


The Foodie: Understanding Food Labels

March 16, 2009
by Lindsey Chapman
Food labels: nearly everything we eat has them, yet they seldom make for easy reading. Here’s a quick how-to guide for deciphering the labels on your food.

What’s in a Serving Size?

According WebMD, a serving size represents the amount of food most people generally eat—or should. This may or may not be what constitutes a serving for you, so pay attention to what a food label considers a “serving size,” and how many servings are in the container. If a label says a package of food contains three servings, you’ll need to triple the calorie count and other nutritional values if you eat it all in one sitting.

Has the Food Expired, or What?

“Sell By,” “Best If Used By” and “Use By” dates are perhaps some of the most perplexing statements on a food label. Consumers often wonder if those dates are an indication of when the food is no longer fit to eat. Nearly all foods are safe for weeks—even months, in some cases—longer than these dates on the label. Most often, that information is just an indicator of freshness, according to KXAN TV in Texas. Use good judgment when deciding to consume food, however. For example, a pre-made sandwich containing fresh meat and cheese can quickly become a breeding ground for unsafe bacteria. “When in doubt, throw it out.”
“Today” show writer Phil Lempert says the expiration date is the most important date on the food label. If you’ve still got food that’s past its expiration date, don’t eat it. This date “means what it says,” Lempert explains.

How Much Is Too Much (or Too Little)?

Nutritional values on a label mean nothing if you aren’t sure how to use the numbers to your benefit. If you want to limit your sodium intake, for example, seek out foods with 5 percent or less sodium. Hoping to boost your fiber? The American Heart Association says you need to find a food marked with 20 percent or more of fiber per serving.

Food Label Requirements

ABC News examined how accurate food labels are, and learned that some of them miss the mark in terms of truthfulness. The show hired a lab to test 12 different products, and found that some foods were healthier than the label indicated; others were worse. This video explains that according to government regulations, food manufacturers are allowed some “wiggle room” when it comes to revealing nutritional facts about their product.
Following a salmonella scare that’s been traced to Mexico, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented country-of-origin requirements for food labels. Companies will spend an estimated $2.5 billion complying with the new rules in 2009, and those costs will be passed on to consumers. For some shoppers, the benefit of knowing where their food comes from will be worthwhile, even though they’ll likely pay more money for their purchases. “To me, it is scary to buy food that you don’t know how or where it was grown,” said Paula J. Quall, a resident of Merriam, Kansas.

Ingredient Listings

In January 2006, the federal government required easier-to-read food labels for people with allergies. Ingredient listings were made simpler, helping adults and children know with certainty whether a product contained a food they could not eat. Before revisions to food labels were required, products labeled “non-dairy” may actually have contained milk byproducts, according to the Mayo Clinic. Now, rather than listing casein (a milk protein) in an ingredient list, a label might place “milk” in parenthesis next to “casein,” or just say, “contains milk.”
Ever wondered if you’re getting enough riboflavin in a day? Ever wondered what riboflavin is? MedlinePlus provides fact sheets for many of the dietary supplements you may find on a food label.

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