How to Read Food Labels
By law, manufacturers have to label foods so it is clear exactly what is in them and, where appropriate, to give nutritional advice. This is good news for shoppers – although labels can still seem to be a source of confusion first and information second.
Ingredients lists on Food Labels
Items with more than one ingredient must list everything that they contain. The ingredient at the top of this list is the one it contains most of (by weight). So if a preserve lists sugar and then strawberries, you know it’s going to have less fruit than a jam that puts strawberries first.
Additives and flavorings are included on ingredient lists, or choose foods that say free of additive, preservative and artificial-flavoring, and look for 100 percent natural ingredients.
Nutrition facts on Food Labels
The label provides an indication of serving sizes and states how many calories the food has per serving. The percentage Daily Value shows how much of a nutrient is present in the food as a percentage of the total amount that is required each day on an average daily diet of 2,000 calories. The label also contains details on vitamin, sugar, fiber, calcium, fat, carbohydrate, protein, sodium, and cholesterol content. This information will help you decide if the food fits into your day’s nutritional needs.
‘Sell by’ on Food Label
This date is found on the packaging of fresh foods like meats, poultry, and dairy items. It is the last date on which the store will sell this item. At the close of business, the food must be removed from the shelf. The ‘sell by’ date may or may not be the last date on which you can safely eat the food. Unless there is an accompanying later date, under the label ‘eat by’, you must assume that it is the final day and throw the food away. Alternatively, plan ahead and cook and freeze appropriate food before the ‘sell by’ date.
‘Eat by’ and ‘use by’ on Food Labels
This date is found on the packaging of fresh fish, vegetables, meat, and dairy. It is the last date on which you can safely eat the food. After this date, you should throw it away. This is especially true of food that is highly vulnerable to bacterial growths. Pate, fish, and raw meats should never be eaten after the ‘eat by’ date.
‘Best before’ on Food Labels
Found on practically all food that doesn’t carry ‘sell by’ or ‘eat by’ instructions such as rice, jams, sauces, biscuits, bakery products, frozen foods, and canned and bottled goods. This is the date after which the manufacturers can no longer guarantee that the foods will be in top condition. It is rarely harmful to eat foods that have just passed a ‘best before’ date, though cakes and cookies may start to taste stale, and frozen food become rather tasteless.
Tips for using food labels
- A casserole with a label reading ‘mushroom and chicken’ (in that order) will have little meat content.
- Check the order of words on food labels carefully.
- Check meat products carefully, as some may contain just 10 percent meat.
- If the word ‘flavored’ follows a food, such as ‘strawberry-flavored mousse’, it may have no fruit content at all.
- Bear in mind that foods that are labeled ‘sugar-free’ usually contain artificial sweeteners.
- Look out for water on the list, as the percentage of water that a food item contains will be listed. You may decide not to buy ham that has 30 percent water added, choose one labeled ‘no added water’.
- It is possible to freeze food on its ‘sell by’ date, but remember to eat the foods immediately after thawing.