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Food Packaging Labels: How to Understand Nutrition Facts to Eat Healthier & Save

For most of recorded history, humans were intimately connected with their food. It was essential to know which plants, animals, and fish were edible, as well as the optimal ways to preserve excess foodstuff for periods of drought and famine. Before the invention of canned food in the early 19th century, people typically grew or purchased fresh vegetables and fruit, butchered live animals and birds, and relied on pickling, salting, smoking, sun drying, and underground cold storage to keep their food from spoiling.

Mass-produced processed food gradually replaced fresh food in American diets after World War II, spurred by massive advertising campaigns. The replacement of processed foods for fresh foods extended and complicated the link between food preparation and consumption, forcing consumers to rely on the processes, skills, and integrity of food producers and processors to provide edible, nutritious products free from harmful substances and bacteria.

Our inability to differentiate safe food from spoiled or dangerous food – a skill past generations had when the link between farm and table was more direct – has led to a reliance on food labels as an indication of safety. Unfortunately, consumers are often confused by the various labels, which can lead them to overpay for food with certain labels and throw out perfectly good food because they think it’s past its “expiration date.”

As with anything, knowledge is power when it comes to food labels. Here’s what you need to know to be an informed and savvy consumer.

Food Safety Regulations

Thanks to the meat-packing abuses exposed in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and food industry practices revealed by the Poison Squad of 1902, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, turning the Patent Office’s Agricultural Division into today’s Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1938, Congress passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, significantly expanding the FDA’s authority.

Food safety in the U.S. is provided by three federal agencies, in addition to each state’s public health agencies:

  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition regulates all foods, excluding those within the scope of the FSIS.
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). This agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the labeling and packaging of meat, poultry, egg products, and some fish to ensure safety.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This agency collects data and investigates instances of foodborne illnesses and outbreaks. It’s especially visible in circumstances such as the 2015 Foster Farms salmonella outbreak and Chipotle Mexican Grill E.coli incident.

Before the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, fresh fruits and vegetables were unregulated, and consumers relied on their ability to distinguish the safety of these foods by appearance, feel, and smell. Most fruits and vegetables are now regulated, but those that are considered “rarely consumed raw” remain unregulated.

How to Read Food Labels

The FDA and FSIS rely heavily on manufacturer labeling to inform buyers about the foods they eat. Though different foods are regulated by different federal agencies, producers, processors, and distributors are required to disclose specific data on labels easily visible to consumers. To ensure compliance, food producers, distributors, and retailers are subject to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) prohibition against false and deceptive advertising.

USDA Mandatory Disclosures

The agencies mandate labels with specific disclosures on regulated food products. These requirements are detailed in the FSIS report Guide to Federal Food Labeling Requirements for Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products and the FDA’s Food Labeling Guide. Standard labeling information common to all types of food, excluding raw fruits and vegetables intended to be cooked, include:

  • Product Name. Meat and poultry products must be identified by a name that is commonly recognized by consumers or a description about the essential nature of the food or its ingredients – for example, “chicken soup” or “breaded chicken nuggets.” Food that is new but resembles or is a substitute for a traditional food must be labeled as “imitation.” Juice beverages must disclose the percentage of juice in the product.
  • Inspection Legend and Establishment Number. The identification of the facility where the product was officially inspected by the USDA must be prominently displayed. Food produced outside the U.S. must clearly display the name of the country of origin.
  • Net Weight Statement. The label must include an accurate account of the quantity of the package by weight, volume, or count. Only the food should be considered in the weight, not the packaging. The unit of measurement depends on the product type – for example, pounds and ounces for a solid or semi-solid product like chili con carne and ounces for a liquid like soup. The measurement should also exclude the weight of any water that’s discarded before use, such as in a bottle of olives. The stated amount and actual amount may vary slightly due to moisture loss or natural deviation in the packaging process.
  • Ingredients Statement. When a product contains two or more ingredients, they must be listed individually in the order of their predominance by weight. Ingredients include water, fats, oils, spices, colorings, artificial flavors, and chemical preservatives. Components of the major food allergens – milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts – must be disclosed in a unique, easily discernible position on the label.
  • Name and Address. The name and address of the manufacturer, packer, or processor must be prominently displayed.
  • Nutrition Facts. Since 1994, nutritional information has been required for most foods, including meat and poultry. This information is based on the identified serving size and includes the percentage of daily dietary requirements established by the FDA as necessary for good health. There are exceptions for nutrition labeling requirements, including products made by small businesses, products not for sale to consumers, products intended for export, or individually wrapped packages less than 1/2 ounce in weight.
  • Safe Handling Instructions. Safe handling instructions such as “Keep Frozen” or “Refrigerate After Opening” must be included when a product is subject to spoilage or deterioration.

In addition to mandated information, the USDA allows specific labels for meat that has been tested and verified by the agency:

  • Grade. The terms “Prime,” “Choice,” and “Select” are quality grades for beef based on specific USDA standards relating to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Veal, lamb, pork, and chicken have similar degrees of quality. Since producers must pay an extra fee for the grading service, many cuts of meat are not graded.
  • Fresh, Never Frozen. Meat labeled with this claim has never been frozen, from the time the animal was harvested to the retail sale.
  • Tenderness. Producers can mark beef “Certified Tender” or Certified Very Tender” if it’s been tested and certified as such by the USDA.
  • Religious Labels. The USDA allows the tags of “Kosher” and “Halal” for meat harvested and processed according to Jewish and Islamic law, respectively.

Food Production & Processing Labels

Most consumers have little knowledge of the environment and methods producers and processors use to turn living plants and animals into safe, consumable food. That enables segments of the food industry to differentiate their products with claims of higher quality or safer ingredients due to non-conventional production and processing techniques and environments.

USDA Organic Label & Seal

The percentage of organic food consumed in the U.S. has increased for several years, passing $50 billion in sales in 2018. According to Keith Nunes of Food Business News, there is no difference in the nutritional value of food produced organically or conventionally, but consumers are willing to pay a premium – as high as 47% for some foods – for the level of transparency provided by the certification process.

The USDA regulates the use of the term “organic” on food labels through its National Organic Program. Plants and animals with a USDA organic seal are 95% natural with no synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, biotechnology, artificial ingredients, or irradiation used in production or processing. The USDA allows products that are 70% organic to use the label “made with organic ingredients,” but they cannot use the USDA seal.

Private Certifications & Seals

Food companies are always looking for an edge over their competitors, including certifications and labels regarding how their food is grown or processed due to the expense and administrative requirements of USDA certification, growers and processors have created not-for-profit organizations to certify that their products are organically produced. The most popular non-USDA labels for organic or naturally produced foods are:

  • Certified Naturally Grown. This label is not issued by the USDA but by an alternative nonprofit organization of the same name. It was founded by farmers and ranchers in 2002 as an alternative for the expensive and timely process required by the USDA for its certification. Rather than government-sponsored inspections, other farmers act as inspectors.
  • Non-GMO Project Verified. Capitalizing on consumer fears about genetically modified products, food producers and retailers use the certification and seal issued by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization created by two grocery stores in 2007. While the majority of the scientific community believes GMO foods are safe, consumers are willing to pay a price premium for products they believe are more “natural.”

The USDA requires that any food label that claims a “certification” must include the name of the certifying organization. For example, a cattle producer might label his products as “Certified Double T Beef.”

Consumers should note that much of the food labeled as organic is not authentic due to the limited number of inspectors, infrequent and inadequate inspections, and deliberate mislabeling by foreign producers.

Animal Production & Processing Conditions Labels

Americans have become increasingly aware of the conditions in which meat and dairy animals are raised and processed due to the efforts of organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA has aggressively promoted the image of commercial operations as cruel and inhumane. Even though there is little scientific evidence to support the claim that happy animals produce more nutritious or better-tasting products, consumers have shown a willingness to pay extra for foods produced under what they consider more natural and humane conditions.

The USDA does not define production practices but does provide a “USDA Process Verified” seal intended to assure consumers that the animals from which products are derived are humanely raised. However, critics complain that the agency’s verification system is weak – even non-existent in some cases – and unreliable.

Many food operations and cooperatives, eager to differentiate their products from those produced under conventional methods, have supported certification and seals from independent organizations, including seals that claim animals are:

  • Grass-Fed. The American Grassfed Association issues a certification and seal that certifies that products derived from beef and dairy cattle, bison, lambs, and goats are from animals fed exclusively on pasture without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or confinement and with standards for high animal welfare.
  • Animal Welfare Approved. The nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute works solely with family farms and certifies that products derived from beef and dairy cattle, bison, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and rabbits are from animals raised on pasture or range with enough space to produce a state of physical and psychological well-being.
  • American Humane Certified. The American Humane Association issues a seal that certifies animals that products derived from beef and dairy cows, chickens, goats, pigs, turkeys, and bison are from animals with access to clean and sufficient food and water in a safe, healthy living environment by staff and managers who have been thoroughly trained to care for animals in a humane manner.
  • Certified Humane Raised and Handled. The nonprofit Human Farm Animal Care was founded by Adele Douglass, a veteran lobbyist for the American Humane Association and a former Congressional staff member. The organization identifies specific, objective standards of care for each type of dairy or food animal raised for sale in the U.S. and verifies compliance through third-party independent inspectors. The organization’s certification standards were challenged PETA in 2017 and remain unresolved.

Some labels – such as “Cage-Free,” “Natural,” “Free-Range,” “Locally Grown,” and “Humanely Handled” – are intended to inform consumers about the conditions in which animals are raised and the food they eat. However, there are no legal or commonly accepted definitions of what these and similar terms and phrases mean. The Specialty Food Association explains the 36 most-prevalent food labels.

In a recent article, The New York Times notes that most non-regulated labels are issued by nonprofit groups that set their own standards for certification. Consumer advocates recommend that before you purchase any certified product, you should investigate the certifying organization, its standards for accreditation, and the verification process to assure such criteria are met. In almost all cases, a certifying seal means a higher retail price.

Product Dating Labels

Dating labels often appear on foods, whether fresh, packaged, or frozen. Since there are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions for these in the United States, there are a plethora of date labels to confuse consumers. The most common are:

  • Best If Used By/Before. This date indicates when a product will be at its best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Sell By. This date is intended for store management, not consumers, to alert the store of how long they should display a product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • Use By. This is the last date to use the product at its peak quality. It’s the processor’s estimate, often manipulated to sell more product. It is not a safety date, except when applied to infant formula (as described below).
  • Freeze By. This date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

The USDA does not require or regulate dating labels on food, except for infant formula. The “use by” label for infant formula is a guarantee that the product contains no less than the amount of each nutrient described on the product label until that date. It’s still safe to consume baby food after the “use by” date, but it may be less nutritious.

Consumers often misunderstand dating labels, assuming they’re indicative of safety, rather than quality. According to a national survey, more than one-third of consumers inaccurately believe that dating labels are federally regulated, while 26% are unsure.

This confusion leads to enormous waste and additional expense as 84% of consumers discard food close to or past the date on the labels. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimated in 2013 that up to 50% of the global food produced each year is wasted. According to ReFED’s Roadmap to Reduce Food Waste, 90% of American households throw out still-fresh food, accounting for roughly $29 billion – about $229 per family – each year. Food waste is also the third-largest source of methane, a greenhouse gas that affects the atmosphere.

Using Food Labels to Cut Your Grocery Bills

According to the USDA, a family of four spends between $567 and $1,105 monthly for food. Consumers who prefer organic food or food raised and processed in animal-friendly environments are likely to pay more than the typical supermarket price, but there are ways to maximize your grocery budget without sacrificing food quality.

1. Practice Meal Planning

Taking the time to plan your meals for the week ahead can improve your diet and save you money. A menu plan provides you with an easy schedule of future food preparation and consumption, and by examining use-by dates, you can select ingredients that will remain at peak quality for the longest period. Websites such as Plan to Eat and Cook Smarts provide menu selections as well as grocery lists for subscribers.

2. Buy Produce for Its Intended Use

It’s important to consider the appearance, smell, taste, and texture of fruits and vegetables you’ll eat raw or with minimum preparation to ensure their safety. But the appearance and texture of produce you’ll cook or serve with other ingredients is less important.

Supermarkets and grocery stores typically discount foods past their sell-by dates to make room for fresher product. Recognizing how you’ll serve the fruits and vegetables you buy enables you to buy products that are still safe and nutritious but cost less because they may be past their prime appearance.

3. Dig Deeper

Grocery store shelves are typically stacked on a “last in, first out” basis because shoppers rarely take the time to review dating labels, simply picking the closest item on the shelf. As a consequence, the prime time to consume the product is often wasted because the freshest products are located further back. Astute shoppers search for the most distant sell-by date on the shelf, even if it requires moving merchandise around.

4. Store Foods Properly

Unless you purchase the ingredients for each meal independently, you’ll need to store some food until you’re ready to use it. Knowing the right way to store different foods helps you preserve their quality and ensure their safety for longer.

Food you’ll use in a less than a week should be stored in air-tight, clean containers in a refrigerator kept at 37 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Food you’ll store for longer should be frozen and kept in a freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the FDA, frozen food will keep indefinitely in the freezer without losing nutrients, although its appearance and taste might change over long storage periods.

5. Buy in Bulk & in Season

Produce prices are typically lowest when you bulk amounts during the harvest season directly from local farmers and producers. Produce that you won’t use shortly after harvest should be washed and frozen for later. If you lack storage space or have a small family, joining a local food co-op might be worth your while.

6. Don’t Let Leftovers Go to Waste

When you let food go bad and are forced to throw it out, you’re essentially tossing your money in the trash. Knowing how to use up your leftovers will help you get the most out of the food you’ve already purchased. Check out these ideas for how to use leftovers.

Final Word

In 2004, environmental activists publicly screened the documentary “The Future of Food” in countries across the globe. The film was especially critical of corporate control of agriculture and gene modification in crops and animals. As we become more and more disconnected from how our food is produced, consumer fears about the nutritional value and safety of food escalate, aggravated by a lack of trust in institutions to protect them. These concerns compound due to our tendency to believe the opinions of the neighbor across the street rather than the research scientists in universities and laboratories around the world.

But agriculture and food safety has changed dramatically for the better over the years, primarily due to technology and food science. Better nutrition at a lower cost is available to those Americans who take the time to read and understand food labels, practice sound food preparation and storage techniques, and shop wisely.

Does the information on food labels influence your purchasing decisions? Do you throw away food because it’s past the date on the container?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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