You have made your resolution to be healthy. You go to the store to choose between two products, looking for the better option. But then what? How do you pick? You read the label of course!
They are something we take as a given, but they are enormously important to our health and well-being. Food labels guarantee that the food is what we think it is and that products are as nutritious as we think they are. Labels teach us about ingredients and nutrients.
With more and more international trade, it is harder and harder for us to know who our food producers are and exactly where the food comes from. Trustworthy labels help fill this gap. FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working together through the Codex Alimentarius Commission to set the global standards for food labelling. Countries must abide by these standards when labelling food, especially those that will be sold on the global market.
Here are 6 things that food labels are helping you do:
1. Keep healthy – Labels help you to understand the composition of your food: its vitamins, minerals, calories, fats, etc. This information is fundamental in ensuring that you are eating the kinds of food that are good for you. With labels, you can monitor your intake of micronutrients to avoid deficiencies, especially common ones like iron and Vitamin D. You can watch your weight by monitoring calories and saturated fats; you can limit your intake of sugar and salt and make sure that you are eating a balanced diet. All of these actions can help prevent illnesses, like diabetes and certain types of heart disease.
2. Keep you safe – Every year, more than 600 million people get sick and 420 000 die as a result of eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals. Labels provide warnings and important information about the ways to use a product (for example, storage and cooking instructions), which are necessary for keeping food safe.
FAO and WHO, through the Codex Alimentarius Commission, set the global standards for food labelling. Countries must abide by these standards when labelling food, especially those sold on the global market. Left: ©FAO/J. Belgrave; Right:@Shutterstock/Ekaterina Minaeva
3. Stops you from buying counterfeit products - Preventing fraud is one of the main aims of food labelling. Without internationally guaranteed labels, food sellers could deliberately mislead consumers through false representation on packaging. When you buy chocolate, you want to make sure it is actually chocolate or when it is fish, that it is actually the fish it claims
4. Detect ingredients that could cause you harmful reactions – Reactions to food affect 10-25 percent of the population in developed countries. The most common allergenic foods include peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, wheat and tree nuts. If you did not know the ingredients in a product, you could mistakenly eat something that would cause an allergy attack, some of which are very severe. Food labels let you know what to avoid.
5. Stop you from wasting food - Food labels (when read correctly!) can stop you from throwing out good food. Date marking on food labels lets you know for how long a product is safe to eat. This is important to avoid getting sick from expired food. However, it is also true that confusing “best before” and “use by” dates can lead to more food waste. In the EU, approximately 10 percent of food that is wasted is linked to date marking. Educating consumers and supply chain stakeholders can help to prevent this food waste and to keep date marking true to its purpose of keeping food safe to eat.
Labels help you to understand the composition of your food. This information is fundamental in ensuring that you are eating the kinds of food that are good for you. ©FAO/Alessia Pierdomenico
6. Support your local food producers - Certain labels that indicate the food’s origin, for example Colombian Coffee (Colombia), Manchego cheese (Spain), Darjeeling tea (India) or Kona Coffee (USA), can attract a customer’s attention and bring more value to the product and thus to the producer. Consumers tend to identity local and typical food products to a specific place and attribute characteristics - such as taste and quality – to geographic locations. In a study conducted by EBRD and FAO, nine products with geographic indication labels increased the price of the final product by 20 to 50 percent. Today, consumers are increasingly linking quality to geographical origins and traditions.
Food labels are easy to ignore as you reach out for your favorite product or snack. They are just one of the many seemingly boring pieces of writing vying for your attention. Yet, information is power and this power can help you take control of your own health. You might not like being called a “health nut” or a “junk food addict”, but you definitely want your tomatoes to be called tomatoes and peanuts to be called peanuts! We strive for a world where there is food for all, taking for granted that it is safe food. Yet, without this essential foundation, we cannot build a #ZeroHunger world.