The Importance of Food Labels

Food labels provide valuable information about the nutrition of packaged foods. They are designed to encourage consumers to buy healthier products by highlighting the nutritional content of those foods. They usually include a nutrition facts panel and ingredients list. Food companies must display nutrition facts on their products unless they are small businesses exempt from federal labeling regulations. Nutrition facts panels must include calories, fat, saturated and trans fat, total and monounsaturated fat, sodium, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and potassium. Nutrient claims such as “low sodium” or “saturated fat free” can also be displayed on packaging, but these must meet a specific criteria set by regulators to qualify. Structure/function claims describe how a particular nutrient or ingredient affects the body, like “calcium helps maintain strong bones.”

In addition to listing a product’s nutrient contents, food labels can also indicate whether the food contains any major allergens that may cause life-threatening allergic reactions such as milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, soy or wheat. Many labels also feature an optional “may contain” or “made in shared equipment with” statement that lists additional allergens that could be present, not as ingredients in the final food, but as trace amounts resulting from cross-contact during manufacturing.

Food labels can also highlight a product’s place of origin. This can add value to a food for some customers and may help support local food producers. For example, labels that mention the source of a product such as Colombian coffee (Colombia), Manchego cheese (Spain), Darjeeling tea (India) or soy sauce (Japan) can create a connection to a region and its traditions and increase consumer demand for these foods.

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