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Food label: the details

After discussing the basic information a food label gives (see Blog “Food label”), it is time to take a more in depth look at some of its additional data, as well as some trap elements that might be hiding there. As we have already noted, a food label consists of two parts, the ingredients and the nutritional value table. Lets, now, examine:

  • Have you noticed anything particular concerning the order they are listed? The order of listing is by no means random, since the one with the highest content is placed first and the one with the smallest, or in traces, or which may or may not be present, is placed last. Practically, that means that if for example sugar is listed 3rd, the product contains it high amount, while if it is the 15th or 20th, its content is probably limited.
  • Since 2011, by regulation of the European Parliament and Council, the producers and food companies have to list all the ingredients, even those contained in traces, so that the consumer is fully informed, as there is a possibility that some of them are strong allergens. A typical example is nuts, as they are one of the most well-known ingredients that cause allergies. Those are usually placed at the end of the ingredients’ list written as “may contain traces of…” or in bold “nuts”. The reason for this is that it is a matter of corporate transparency and public health securement.
  • Based on the aforementioned, one could assume that consumers have all the information they need. If sugar is not listed, it means that the product contains no simple carbohydrates/sugars, right? This case is quite typical, since many people avoid foods that contain it. Therefore, companies started using other alternatives, which, however, ultimately belong to the category of simple carbs/sugars and should be avoided. Examples of such ingredients are glucose, fructose, as well as others with more consumer-friendly names, such as concentrated fruit juice, syrup or nectar. When we come across one of these terms, especially if they are placed in the first positions of the ingredients, we should refer to the nutritional value table and look at the simple carbs/sugars section for guidance.
  • Among the ingredients we will find the various E of the product, a wide range of useful substances, such as dyes, substances with antibacterial action, ingredients to reduce oxidation and so on. Over the years, food safety has become a sector of increasing importance for the food industry, so the additives used are constantly monitored for suitability and the effect they may have on health. Clearly they are not always harmful to our body, for instance E300 (ascorbic acid) which is often used as an antioxidant is none other than the well-known vitamin C. However, as this area is still evolving, it would be better for consumers to prefer foods with low E content, mainly because they are the ones that are most processed before they reach the table.
  • Very often we come across the terms "natural food/product" or "organic". These terms are not fully elucidated and should not be translated into “healthy” in any case. They may be of better quality than their conventional counterparts, but it is best for the consumer not to confuse the concepts.
  • Finally, the term "free" should not lead us astray, as this terminology does not mean the complete absence of an ingredient. For example, a “cholesterol-free” product contains up to 2 mg per serving. The same goes for products free of energy/calories, fat, saturated fats, sodium etc. The cut-off points are different for each ingredient, however they all are quite low. Additionally, using the previous example, the fact that a product has a low cholesterol content does not guarantee that it will leave our body’s cholesterol levels unaffected.
There are many details hidden in a food label and consumers should always be well-informed and suspicious about the products they purchase. Surely, the in-depth reading of food labels might seem time-consuming or even tedious for someone who has not done it before, however it is a habit that will greatly benefit your quality of life. Certainly, if one has questions after this, they can always contact their dietitian for more information.

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