Reading food labels can be a challenge, especially when trying to make choices to support a more sustainable food system. Food and nutrition labels around the world can include a lot of information, and not all of it is easy to decipher. Here are ten things to consider when reading food labels – and remember, often what’s NOT on the label is as important as what is on the label.
1. A global set of guidelines known as the Codex Alimentarius forms the World Food Code.
For most of human history, the majority of food was produced, sold, and consumed locally. But over the past century, national and international trade in food has increased to the point that eaters expect to find products from around the world in their supermarkets.
The Codex Alimentarius was created in 1963 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to support an international food standards program as well as to help develop guidelines for nutrition labeling and health claims. The Codex, which is voluntary, is often used as a basis for national food standards regulations, including food labels.
2. Provenance and Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
Where a product comes from may be difficult to determine from its label. Fresh produce, dairy, and meats have different provenance labeling regulations around the world. In the European Union, for example, beef and veal must be labeled according to where the animal was born, the country of fattening, and the country of slaughter, all of which provide insight into the length of animal transport and the food chain as a whole.
For fresh produce, the provenance can indicate how far the produce has traveled, whether it is in season (growing food out of season may require more resources and inputs), and whether the produce comes from local or regional growers.
In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) exempts any product that has been processed in any way, or contains more than one ingredient, from COOL requirements. This includes everything from roasted nuts to salad mixes. Checking where the product was packaged does not necessarily indicate where the ingredients originated.
3. Nutrition label
It’s important to note that nutrition labels are not designed to provide insight into how sustainably the product was produced or into the ingredient composition of the product. Nutrition labeling is mandatory in some countries, voluntary in others, and non-existent in many. Regulations can vary even between regions and states within a country.
The real function of a nutrition label is to inform consumers about the food’s health value. Nutrition labels in countries including Australia, Britain, Sweden, and Denmark are now on the front of packaging in easy-to-understand rating systems such as traffic light colors, starred ratings, or numerical scales that indicate the nutrition content of the product. In the U.S., where nutrition labeling is undergoing the first major overhaul in 20 years, the focus is on raising the visibility of the food’s calories and the amount of added sugar in the product.
4. Ingredient list
In general, ingredient lists that are easy to understand and contain few unrecognizable ingredients are more likely to be healthy foods rather than a mixture of dyes, additives, preservatives, or flavor enhancers.
Consumer awareness about the sustainability of individual ingredients is important to making the right choices. Seeing a basic ingredient like palm oil on a list might seem to indicate a healthy food. However, palm oil is the least expensive edible oil used in food processing and represents the largest share of the global market. Its use has risen since the decline of trans-fats in processed foods. According to the Rainforest Alliance, most palm oil used in food today is still not sustainably produced. Despite public commitments by numerous large food producers such as PepsiCo, General Mills, and Kellog’s to source palm oil responsibly, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists many companies still use palm oil supplies from unsustainable plantations.
5. Method of production
For meat and dairy products, there are several labels that are used to indicate farm animals and products that have been cultivated in a sustainable manner. These labels include organic, grass-fed, cage-free, straw-bedded, and free-range, among others. But as outlined by Compassion for Animals, an international farm animal welfare organization, there are currently no labeling requirements to clearly indicate meat and dairy products from animals that were conventionally farmed using factory methods.
The label ‘natural’ on packaging doesn’t have any relation to the product’s nutrition or sustainability of production. In the U.S., the term carries meaning when applied to meat, poultry, and eggs: the natural label indicates that no artificial colors or ingredients have been added.
However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA both allow the use of the natural label to be applied to meat products from animals raised using hormones and/or antibiotics. The FDA and the USDA also allow products that include genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) to carry the natural label.
The organic label can be a useful tool, depending on how narrowly a nation’s regulatory authorities have defined what qualifies for the label. Organic generally indicates how food was grown and processed. Organic practices are typically intended to promote healthy soil and water conservation without using synthetic and/or chemical methods to fertilize and control weeds. Organic livestock is raised on organic feed, without the use of antibiotics or hormones.
It’s important to know that unless a label actually reads 100-percent organic, many national and regional regulations allow a product to carry an organic label even if not all the ingredients in a product, or all the feed given to livestock, were actually organic.
8. Genetically-Modified Organisms
According to a list compiled by the Center for Food Safety, there are 64 countries around the world which require labeling of products which contain GMOs. In the U.S., the FDA policy is to support voluntary rather than mandatory GMO labeling. According to the USDA, approximately 90 percent of all corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Unless a label explicitly indicates otherwise, any corn or soy used in U.S.-manufactured products or livestock feed is likely a GMO.
9. Food Sustainability
Several voluntary labels support standards that promote a range of social, environmental, and developmental issues, such as the Fair Trade Certification label and the Rainforest Alliance Frog. These labels focus not only the sustainability of food production itself, but on the wage and living conditions of food workers, farmworkers and their families, as well as the protection of wildlife and habitats.
A number of labels highlight more specific environmental issues related to sustainable food production systems and practices.These voluntary initiatives include labels such as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Carbon Trust Footprint, and the Marine Stewardship Council Sustainable Seafood certification.
10. Expiration date
Sell-by and use-by date labels are not federally regulated. They vary from state to state (and country to country), and represent suggestions by manufacturers as to when a food is at its peak rather than a guarantee of safety or quality. According to recent studies by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Americans throw away up to 40 percent of all the food they buy. One of the main reasons is an unclear understanding of the date labeling system.
The NRDC suggests that a good way to cut down on rampant food waste is to learn more about food storage safety and guidelines rather than to rely solely on date labeling to determine food longevity.