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Food labeling tells consumers about the, ingredients, and nutritional composition of packaged food for sale. Labels may also contain information about the conditions under which the food was produced. In the United States, food labeling is regulated by several federal agencies. Some labeling information is mandatory, while others is voluntary.
Food labeling is designed to protect the health and well being of consumers. It allows them to:
In the United States, food labeling is regulated by a great deal of very specific, complex, ever-evolving legislation. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the federal agencies most involved with food labeling issues and enforcement of food labeling laws. The USDA is responsible for the labeling of meat, poultry, and egg products. The FDA regulates the labeling most other foods, including seafood and bioengineered foods. The FDA also regulates dietary supplements and nutraceuticals. States also may regulate food labeling. For example, some states require sell-by or use-by information of food labels. When state and federal laws conflict, federal laws must be followed.
Different types of food have different labeling requirements. For example, canned or frozen foods are required to have different information on their labels than fresh meat, poultry, and fish. Fresh vegetables are usually subject to voluntary labeling unless they are being sold as “organic” produce. Legislation covers things as specific as the definitions of certain words used on the label (e.g. low fat), to the size of the print used on the label, to where certain information must be placed on the package. Milk and milk products are often subject to additional regulation by state dairy boards. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives regulates alcoholic beverages. The United States Customs Service requires certain information on processed foods that are imported into the U.S. This entry discusses general aspects of food labeling, with the understanding that there are complications and exceptions to almost every aspect of food labeling requirements.
Basic mandatory information
Both the FDA and the USDA require certain information to be listed in English on the label of
packaged food available for sale. This information includes:
Supplemental required information
Certain foods are required to have additional information on the label. Some of these requirements are listed below.
Optional label information
Certain information on food labels is optional. However, any optional information on the label must follow set guidelines and not be misleading. Foods that are labeled as “low fat,” “:reduced calorie,” “sugar free,” or that make similar claims must meet the official FDA definition of these words (see below). Foods may list a specific amount of a particular nutrient, such as “:3 grams of carbohydrates,” so long as it is not done in a misleading way. The FDA must approve any health claims the label makes that relate a specific ingredient to a specific disease (such as calcium helping to prevent osteoporosis).
Reading a food label
The many descriptive words on a food label cannot be used unless they meet very specific legal requirements. Some of the common descriptions found on FDA-regulated foods are listed below.
The USDA also has specific requirements for words used in labeling meat and poultry. Some of these include:.
Consumers may also see a USDA grade on the label of cuts of beef and lamb. Pork, veal, and mutton are also graded, but the grades are not usually shown on store packaging. All USDA graded meat is inspected and wholesome, but some grades are more tender and better suit to certain cooking methods than others.
Two other lower grades of beef, standard and commercial, are sometimes sold as ungraded “store brand” meats. These cuts are wholesome and nutritious, but tend to be tougher and dryer than the higher grades. Utility, cutter, and canner beef, the lowest of the eight grades, are almost never seen in stores. These cuts of meat are used to make ground beef, hot dogs, and other processed meat products.
Understanding the nutrition facts panel
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 and subsequent revisions require certain nutritional information be clearly displayed on many foods. It does not apply to meat and poultry, raw fruits and vegetables, ready-to-eat food such as cookies or cakes sold at a bakery, food sold by sidewalk vendors, and a few other exceptions. Counter cards instead of packaging labels provide voluntary nutrition information for many common fruits, vegetables, raw seafood, and wild game or exotic meats (e.g. ostrich). The nutrition facts panel is designed to encourage health eating. It gives consumers a way to compare the nutritional value of products and to see how specific products can meet their dietary needs.
The nutrition facts panel consists of several sections. The serving size is given in both a familiar units such as cups or ounces and in metric units. Serving sizes are standardized for similar foods, so that consumers can make easy comparisons. If the package contains a single serving, the serving size is not required. Under the serving size the servings per container lists the total number of servings contained in the package.
All information listed below the servings per container is given per single serving. People who eat more than one serving will take in more calories and nutrients than the amount listed on the label. Calories and calories from fat, the first nutrient listed, give the consumer a quick idea of how much energy the food provides and how healthful it is (or isn’t).
The next section of the nutrient facts panel deals with specific nutrients. The information is given by weight in metric units (grams or mg) and as a percent daily value. The percent daily value shows how much of each nutrient the food contributes toward meeting the daily recommended amount of each specific nutrient. Percent daily values are based on the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of the nutrient for a person who is eating a 2,000-calorie diet. Percent daily values of 5% or less are considered low and values of 20% or greater are considered high.
The nutrients listed next on the panel are ones that Americans generally eat enough or too much of and that they should try to limit. The first of these are total fat, saturated fat and trans fat. High consumption of saturated fat and trans fat are linked to the development of cardiovascular disease. People should try to consume as little of these fats as possible. Trans was not part of the original nutrient facts panel, but was added beginning January 1, 2006. Not enough information is available to calculate a percent daily value for trans fat. Cholesterol and sodium complete the list of nutrients that Americans consume in large amounts and should try to consume less of.
At the bottom of the label, percent daily values, but no weights, are listed for four nutrients: vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, and iron. These percentages give consumes an idea how low or high the food is in these particular nutrients.
Larger labels have a footnote at the very bottom. The information in this footnote is the always same regardless of the type of food in the package. The footnote explains that the percent daily values are calculated based on a 2,000 calorie diet, and that an individual’s needs may be greater or less than the listed percent daily value depending on the individual’s energy (calorie) needs. The footnote then gives dietary guidance by showing the maximum recommended grams of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and the minimum grams of carbohydrates and dietary fibers a person on a 2,000 or 2,500-calorie diet should consume. This guidance is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. Whether this footnote is included in the label depends on the space is available. By using all the information available on food labels, consumers can make informed decision about the nutritional content of what they eat and maintain a healthy diet.
Labeling requirements change occasionally as more research becomes available, There is a two-year phase-in period whenever labeling requirements are changed. This eases the financial impact on companies whose products require new labels. Occasionally labels will not reflect all the most recent regulations. In 2007, regulations that would require soluble dietary fiber to be listed on food labels were under consideration.
Special labeling requirements are in effect for foods designed to consumed mainly by children age four and younger. See the entry on infant nutrition for additional details.
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Tish Davidson, A.M.