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Understanding what it says on the label

By Dr Despina Charalambous-Kazantzi

AS a consumer do you ever read food labels? Have you ever wondered what is the meaning of those labels?

Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label that usually includes information on energy in kilojoules (kJ) or kilocalories (kcal), usually referred to as calories. They also include information on protein, carbohydrate and fat, providing additional information on saturated fat, sugars and salt. All nutrition information is provided per 100g and sometimes per portion of the food.

Nutrition labels can also provide information on how a particular food or drink product fits into your daily diet. Reference intakes (RI) are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients and energy required for a healthy diet.

Most pre-packed food products also have a list of ingredients listed in order of weight, so the main ingredients in the packaged food always come first.

There are rules that food manufacturers must follow to prevent false claims or misleading descriptions, and there are clear guidelines on what labels on packets can and can’t show.

‘Use by’ dates are found on food that goes off quickly, such as smoked fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads. Don’t use any food or drink after the ‘use by’ date on the label even if it looks and smells fine. This is because using it after this date could put your health at risk. For the ‘use by’ date to be a valid guide, you must follow storage instructions such as ‘keep in a refrigerator’. If you don’t follow these instructions, the food will spoil more quickly and you may risk food poisoning. Once a food with a ‘use by’ date on it has been opened, you also need to follow any instructions such as ‘eat within three days of opening’. But remember, if the ‘use by’ is tomorrow, then you must use the food by the end of tomorrow, even if the label says ‘eat within a week of opening’.

‘Best before’ dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods and are about quality, not safety. When the date is passed, it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture. Eggs can be eaten after their ‘best before’ date as long as they are cooked thoroughly until both yolk and white are solid, meaning any bacteria, such as salmonella, are killed.

Food packaging often makes health claims for the food, such as ‘low fat’ or ‘no added sugar’. Specific rules have been put in place to help prevent misleading claims and only claims that are approved by the European Commission can be used on food packaging. Labels are not allowed to claim that food can treat, prevent or cure any disease or medical condition.

A claim that a food is ‘low in fat’ may only be made where the product contains no more than 3g of fat per 100g for solids or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids. ‘No added sugar’ or ‘unsweetened’ refer to sugar or sweeteners that are added as ingredients. They do not mean that the food contains no sugar since sugars can occur naturally in food (i.e fruit and milk).

In this way, food labels provide a wide range of information about foods. But understanding all of that information is important if we are to make use of it.

Nevertheless, it needs to be careful enough to translate correctly the food labels and to draw correct conclusions.

The new EU rules on food labelling came into force on December 13 last year and make it obligatory for suppliers of packaged foods to provide details about the nutrition information, ingredients, country of origin, allergens and date of minimum durability.

Product labelling is required to describe the exact nature and the characteristics of the food and at the same time to be easily understood by the consumer.

Changes include:
• Mandatory nutrition information for most pre-packaged foodstuffs: a number of foodstuffs are exempt from this requirement (including single ingredient products, herbs, spices, salt, chewing gum, foods in containers the largest surface of which has an area of less than 25cm2, water, soft drinks, olive oil, honey, milk, tea, fermented vinegars).
• Mandatory origin labelling extended to unprocessed meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. Food which is sold by means of distance communication, i.e. internet sales is also included. Any food supplied through distance selling must meet the same information requirements as food sold in shops.
• Allergens: all pre-packaged food products must indicate on the label the presence of ingredients the EU has identified as causing allergic reactions or to which individuals can be intolerant. This list includes: cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, soybeans, milk, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame, sulphur dioxide/sulphites. Under the new rules, all ingredients in this category must now be indicated in the list of ingredients and the name of the substance must be emphasised to distinguish it from the rest of the list of ingredients. The requirement to highlight the use of any of these substances in the production of a foodstuff has been extended to foods sold loose such as food in restaurants, cafes, take-aways, canteens and deli counters etc.
• Date of minimum durability: This date means ‘the date until which the food retains its specific properties when properly stored’. In the case of foods which from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable the date of minimum durability must be replaced by the ‘use-by’ date. An indication of the date of freezing or the date of first freezing for frozen meat, frozen meat preparations and frozen unprocessed fishery products must also be included.

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