How to Read a Food Label

Don't be defeated by the semi-misleading verbiage on cans, jars, bottles, and boxes. Learn how to read a food label and you'll know what you're buying, mostly.

| March/April 1989

When you’re known as "the Ralph Naders of the food industry," people can get edgy about inviting you to dinner. Not long ago, a favorite aunt had us over and proudly served a loaf of "natural" bread she had bought especially for us. As it turned out, the loaf was made from chemically bleached flour colored to look like a dark whole grain, and included hydrogenated oil and artificial preservatives.

However, her mistake is quite understandable. In an age when dishwashing soap boasts real lemon juice and Jell-O contains artificial lemon flavor, it's no wonder that words like fresh, light, and natural don't men what our mothers always taught us.

Yet, a mass of information appears on the packages you buy, some of it federally mandated, some voluntarily supplied. One comic noted that food labels are getting so long he saw one that said, "Continued on next package." Learning how to read food labels can help ensure that you're buying what you really want.

A Label You Can Rely On

Unprocessed whole foods — apples, for example — don't need labeling. But when foods are fabricated, the government demands that the makers tell us what they've done. (Foods sold across state lines adhere to federal regulations; products manufactured and sold within one state are subject only to state laws.) Specifically, the following information must appear — in English, even if the product is imported — on the principal display panel (the part of the label most likely to be displayed) or on the information panel directly to its right:

1. The name of the product.
2. The variety, style, and packing medium in conjunction with the name — for example, "sliced peaches in heavy syrup." (If you're cutting back on sugar, you now know to move on.)
3. If a food resembles another but is not nutritionally equivalent (as defined by the FDA), the word imitation followed by the name of the food being simulated. If the food is nutritionally comparable, however, a fanciful name may be used — for example, Salad Mate for a line of cellulose-based, vitamin-and mineral-fortified, extruded "leafy greens."
4. For some foods, the percentage of a characterizing ingredient, or the announcement that a specific ingredient is or isn't there, or the need to add ingredients.
For example, if "Juicy Fruit Drink" in fact contains no juice and no fruit, its label has to say so. If you are expected to add meat to a boxed beef-stew mix, the manufacturer must point that out.
5. The total amount, liquid included, in the container, expressed by weight, measure, numerical count, or some combination of these. (Looked closely at those "one-pound" cans of coffee lately? Most now hold 13 ounces— for the same price.)
6. A list of ingredients.
7. The name and address of the manufacturer. If the street address is listed in the phone directory, only the city, state and zip code are required. This doesn't always make communication easy. (Points to companies who voluntarily list their complete addresses, double points for phone numbers, triple points for an 800 number.)

Our Sample Food Label Diagram pulls all this together for you.

6/12/2009 10:23:39 AM

Here's another resource for learning about reading food labels:

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