The need for food labelling

In the 19th Century, manufacturers added all kinds of unpleasant substances to processed food.

Milk sellers in the US once added chalk or dye to make their watered-down batches look more palatable. Other food companies added copper sulphate - a garden pesticide - to their tinned vegetables to make them look greener. Formaldehyde or borax was added to extend shelf life. In England, green sugary sweets were coloured with arsenic, and lead was added to red or yellow ones.

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How to decode a food label

bbc.com

Forcing stricter labelling regulations took decades. Today, processed foods come with abundant information about their contents, although it is not always easy to understand.

Food regulations differ around the world. The UN and WHO's Codex Alimentarius provides an international set of labelling standards, but the food code is voluntary and used in different ways worldwide. Nutrition labelling is mandatory in the major economies, including the US, India, China, Japan, Australia and EU members.

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The ingredients are listed from the main ingredient to the least ingredient by weight. For hazelnut spread, the first (and biggest) ingredient is sugar, then oil.

  • Lower down, you'll come across "E numbers". The EU uses these shortcodes to describe additives. For example, E300 is vitamin C, E160c is paprika.
  • In the US, there is no such coding. Instead, additives are described by their chemical names, such as sodium caseinate rather than E469. But it really refers to a protein derived from milk.

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Nutrition facts

Some nations like the UK use red, amber, and green colour codes to express how healthy a processed food is in terms of fat, saturates, sugars and salt. 

For example, a processed meal might have 7.7g of saturated fat and be labelled red. It may also show a percentage like 39%. The amount is calculated using the "Reference intake", which is the maximum recommended intake amount for an adult woman who does an average amount of physical activity.

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Serving size was another definition that may seem obvious at first but is complex to define. Until the Nutrition Facts label appeared, each manufacturer decided for themselves how big a portion was.

  • The 1990 US legislation mandated that the serving size should be the amount "customarily consumed and which is expressed in a common household measure that is appropriate to the food"—but knowing what a serving size is required national surveys. 
  • In the end, the FDA calculated the US serving sizes by using 139 categories, which includes four types of cereal and four types of cheese.

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Health claims are regulated to avoid manufacturers over-promising. 

The US uses three relevant types of claims:

  • Authorised claim: The approved claim must have "significant scientific agreement."
  • Qualified claim: The science is not settled. "Scientific evidence suggests..."
  • Structure-function claim: These claims are vague, such as "calcium builds strong bones". They should be viewed as marketing language.

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