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How to understand food packaging labels

By Erica F. Perusse, B.S. Dietetics, Health and Nutrition

In a world inundated with such a variety of foods and food packaging, reading food package labels has become an essential skill to have. While there are some food labels and terms that are regulated, there are several terms that are not. Did you realize that even the color of the packages has some sort of science and psychology behind it?

Don’t worry…we are here to share some tips and the facts with you about label reading and terms!

But first, a brief overview about the current government legislation regarding food labels. Food labels are required to meet US laws and regulation requirements. This means that companies cannot put whatever they want on a food product and put it on the store shelf. (whew!)

This specific information must be addressed on food packaging (if applied to the item):

  • General food labeling requirements

  • Approved certified organic labeling

  • Allergen labeling (crustacean shellfish, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts, and wheat)

  • Bioengineered labeling (genetically modified ingredients - anything that has been modified through lab techniques that may not be created through conventional breeding or found in nature)

  • Warning labels (also to identify allergens or artificial flavorings/sweeteners)

  • Date label (sell by, use by)

  • Nutrition label (see below)

  • Nutritional guidelines (Daily Recommended Intakes and Dietary Guidelines for Americans)

You may also notice that there are health claims on the packages too. Health claims indicate a connection between foods or nutrients and ability to reduce risk of disease or poor health. Let’s start with a common example:

You pick up a breakfast food product and it says “3 grams of soluble fiber from oatmeal daily in a diet low in saturated fat & cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” ←This is considered to be a health claim, and it also states “this cereal has 2 grams per serving.”

Currently there are two health claim categories authorized (regulated) and qualified (not regulated).

Authorized (or regulated) terms have gone through an extensive review of scientific literature to verify the relationship between food/ingredient and the risk of disease. Once claims have significant scientific agreement, they can be used after approval by FDA. Some examples of regulated terms are organic, heart healthy, lowers cholesterol, help with diabetes, etc.

Foods that are qualified (or not regulated) suggest a connection between food/ingredient and reduced risk of disease or poor health conditions. These do not require the stronger support of research. Some examples of not regulated terms are made with whole grains, free range, locally grown, functional food, etc.

Now let's talk a little about the effects of packaging color and health claims. This is probably the most interesting aspect of food labeling (to me). It is all about psychology and food science. First, I do want to state that color means tend to change over the years and it is also different for other cultures.

  • Green - Perceived as neutral and healthy (viewed as fewer calories, more protein, less fat, etc.)

  • Yellow - Perceived as happiness (viewed as evoking optimism and general good feelings)

  • Brown - Perceived as natural, wholesome, or organic (viewed as sustainable or recycled source)

  • Orange - Perceived as affordable or portray value.

  • Red - Perceived as appetizing (evokes taste buds and stimulates appetite)

  • Black - Perceived as luxury (viewed as more expensive and more substantial)

  • Blue - Perceived as dependable or trustworthy (viewed as serious or formal)

  • Purple - Perceived as unique and sometimes associated with spirituality (holistic products)

Now not all food products follow these guidelines, but a good majority do. Sometimes the product is blue, because the food includes blueberries. Here is just one example of the effect of packaging color and health claims are used to convey messages:

Marketing companies really aim to have customers sort of “eat with your eyes”!

When looking at the nutrition facts panel, here are a few things to focus on when aiming for weight loss.

Because our bodies are different and we all have our own goals…this is just an example of what to aim for. As a Nourished with Emily 1:1 client and Nourished Membership client we work with them to provide specific targets to hit in order for that person to reach their desired goals.

Understanding the ingredients, nutritional information, and other details presented on food packages and labels empowers you to take control of your choices that align with your health and wellness goals. Remember, the more informed you are, the better equipped you'll be to make decisions that nourish your body and support your overall well-being.

As you embark on your journey to making smarter food choices, remember that knowledge is your most powerful tool! Next time you are in the store, start looking at those food package labels to empower you to make informed choices. Your wellbeing and quality of life are worth the effort, and by deciphering those labels, you are taking a significant step towards your goal.

Remember, small changes can lead to big wins when it comes to your nutrition and wellbeing. This is a taste of what we cover with the NWE clients. If you would like to dig deeper on aiming for your nutrition and wellness goals, please reach out to us today.

We would love to have you join us however you see fit. Sign up for a free call here:

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