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Three bars of hot drinking chocolate, one opened. On the packaging of the unopened are claims such as 'no added sugar', 'zero cholesterol', 'naturally high in antioxidants', and 'Produce of Columbia'

What are food labels?

Consumers are exposed to a wide variety of food products in their everyday life. Most carry information about what they contain, where and how they were produced, and how best to use them so that shoppers can make informed choices about what to buy and eat. Manufacturers use food labels to communicate this information about their food to consumers.

Under European Union (EU) regulations, label refers to ‘any tag, brand, mark, pictorial or other descriptive matter, written, printed, stencilled, marked, embossed or impressed on, or attached to the packaging or container of food’. Similarly, labelling refers to ‘any words, particulars, trademarks, brand name, pictorial matter or symbol relating to a food and placed on any packaging, document, notice, label, ring or collar accompanying or referring to such food’ [1]. There are certain rules in the EU for the provision of Food Information to Consumers (Regulation (EU) 1169/2011), usually referred as FIC, and the main aim is to ensure consumer protection. The rules on food labelling ensure consumers get comprehensive information on the composition and content of food products so that they can make informed buying choices and make safe use of them [1]. The general requirements set by the FIC state that food information should not be misleading and it should be clear, accurate and easy to understand.

Some items of information on food labels are mandatory - they are required by the EU provisions (we listed these in Step 1.3), whereas other pieces of information can be provided on a voluntary basis.

Voluntary food information

Including voluntary information on a food label is also regulated by the EU. It should not mislead consumers and should not be confusing. Moreover, voluntary food information should not be provided on the label to the detriment of space available for the mandatory information. Here are some examples of the kinds of voluntary information that are often included:

  • The nutrition declaration is mandatory and has to provide the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt of the food. However, the nutrition declaration can also contain additional voluntary information regarding the amounts of mono-unsaturates, polyunsaturates, polyols, starch, fibre, vitamins and minerals [2].

  • Front of pack (FOP) nutrition labelling represents ‘simplified nutrition information provided on the front of food packaging aiming to help consumers with their food choices’ [2], eg, the ‘Choices’ logo or the UK traffic light system or the Nutri-score system (see below).

  • Nutrition and health claims, namely statements that highlight certain beneficial properties of food (see Step 2.10), can be used by food business operators if their foods meet the requirements of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods [2, 4]. For example, ‘low fat’ is a nutrition claim whereas ‘Iron contributes to normal cognitive function’ is a health claim authorised in the EU.

  • In the EU, there are various voluntary food labelling schemes that are managed by private or public organisations and that provide information about the food that consumers buy (eg an organic label like the Soil Association Organic, an animal welfare labels like Ètiquette Bien-Être Animal or a food quality label like the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)) [5] (see also Steps 1.13 and 3.6).

The facts provided on food labels can take the form of text, combinations of text and graphics or colours. Some countries use graphical features and logos to help consumers select healthier food, such as the Choices programme in the Netherlands, the Keyhole logo in Sweden, the traffic light system in the UK [6] and the Nutri-score system, originated in France and adopted in many EU countries. Some labelling is positioned on the front of pack (FOP), whereas others can be found on the back of pack (BOP). FOP refers to the ‘field of vision of a package which is most likely to be seen at first glance by the consumer at the time of purchase and that enables the consumer to immediately identify a product in terms of its character or nature and, if applicable, its brand name’ [1].

Prepacked food carries all this information on the package or on a label attached to the package but food that is not prepacked only requires information on allergens (although other data might be mandatory depending on the country it is sold in). In this course, we’ll focus on prepacked foods as these tend to carry the most information.

In summary, what do food labels tell us?

An exhaustive overview of all food labels is beyond the scope of this course and besides, labels and their positioning on pack may vary by product type or by country. However, food labels in general help answer these questions:

What is the food?

  • Information that can help identify the food like the name and description of the food.

What does the food contain?

  • Information regarding the contents of the food and their quantity, such as list of ingredients, information on any allergens, the quantity of ingredients and the net quantity of the food.

Is the food still safe to eat/ has its quality diminished?

  • Information relevant for food quality such as the date of minimum durability, or food safety like the ‘use by’ date.

How should the food be stored or used?

  • Information about any special storage conditions and/or conditions of use for the product.

Where does the food come from?

  • Information about the country of origin or place of provenance.

What is the nutritional makeup of the food?

  • Information on energy value and the main nutrients (eg fat, carbohydrate, sugar, protein) is included in the nutrition declaration.
  • Several voluntary nutrition labelling systems are used to inform consumers about the levels of the main nutrients (eg traffic light labelling).
  • Logos can be used to give summary information about the healthfulness of food products (eg choices logo, keyhole logo).

What health benefits does the food have?

  • Some information emphasises a certain nutrient or health benefit that the food has. These are nutrition or health claims.

How sustainable is the product?

  • Information on the sustainability-related benefits of the product, such as organic production, fair trade logo or animal welfare certification.

Thinking about what food labels tell us, which information do you consider is the most important to you and why? What other information, if any, would you like to see on food labels? Share your thoughts in the discussion below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Food Labels

EIT Food

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