Food Labels and Why You Need to Read Them

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“Labels and Logos on food materials are not only animated graphics butalso an indication of authenticity of standards’’

Jammu and Kashmir Food and Drug Control Organization recently seized huge stocks of sub-standard foodstuff like chicken kebabs, fish kebabs, partially cooked fish etc. Valley markets are inundated with such spurious edibles being sold at cheap rates which pose high risk of food borne diseases and thus are a threat to the health of the common masses.

Such edibles do not meet the food regulations and standards as their labels do not include proper information about the composition of the food materials. The general community in our society gets lured by vendors and shopkeepers due to cheap prices and physical quality of these foods. It is time we people started to pay attention to some of the most ignored food features while visiting the grocery stores and other departmental outlets if we want to bring home health and not diseases. Some the ways in which the people can prevent themselves from being duped are given below:

Food labels are references, providing information to aid consumers to make proper food choices. Food labels help to protect public health by displaying information such as use by dates, ingredients, certain allergens, instructions for storage and preparation, advisory and warning statements. Nowadays, unlabeled and unbranded food products are flooding our markets. These food items are cheaply manufactured and prepared in unhygienic conditions. They pose a serious threat to our health. We shouldn’t compromise on our health just to save a little bit of money while buying food. Consumers spend thousands of rupees on food but are unaware about how to actually select the foods that will be nutritious as well as beneficial for their health. Every individual prefers healthy food but no one is conscious about the basic things that need to be kept in mind while buying food.

What is Food Quality?

Quality includes positive and negative attributes that influence a product’s value to the consumer. Positive attributes that demonstrate good quality may be the origin, colour, flavour, texture and processing method of the food, while negative attributes may be visible spoilage, contamination with filth, discoloration or bad odour or taste. However, not all unsafe foods may demonstrate bad quality i.e. unsafe food may appear to be of good quality, such as tainted meat disguised using bleach or strong spices. This distinction between safety and quality has implications for public policy and influences the nature and content of the food control system most suited to meet predetermined national objectives.

Food Labels and Their Importance:

Most consumers read labels for price, weight and to see if the product is vegetarian or non-vegetarian. However, as education and income levels increase, more and more consumers want to make the right choice about the foods they consume, whether it is breakfast cereals, ready to eat foods, dressings, sauces or processed meats. They also want to understand what effect health claims will have on their own health. Consumers who buy packaged foods have higher levels of income and are educated enough that they understand that reading labels can reduce the risk of disease, food poisoning or buying fake or sub-standard products.

In general, food product labels must contain the following information:

Product name and category of food

An ingredient list in descending order of weight or volume

Logo of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food

Nutrition fact panel or information which includes energy, protein, carbohydrate, fat etc.

Nutritional claims to inform a consumer about the nutritional value of a product, for example ‘Low Fat’

The shelf life (Use by or Best Before Date)

Storage conditions when unopened and after opening packaging

The name and address of the manufacturer, packer and / or seller

The country of origin (in case of imported foods)

Product’s weight/quantity

Instructions for use/ preparation

Some Important facts about the information on the label:

All food products have a certain shelf life. Shelf life is the most important label information and it is displayed as “use by” or “expiry date”. This means that the content of the package should not be eaten after this date as the contents inside the package may no longer be safe to eat or could cause health problems. Besides this, there are a number of food products that display ‘best before’ date. This means that the food will retain all its properties right up to the ‘best before’ date if it is stored properly. A product that has passed the best before date may still be safe to eat but the product could have lost some of its properties like taste, smell and appearance. However, it can still be sold if it has an ‘expiry date’ that goes beyond the best before date.

Another important aspect of the label is the “Batch Number” or “Lot Number” or “Code Number”. This number is used to trace the products if they need to be recalled because of some problem with the product which could make it unsafe for the consumer.  Any tinned or packaged food product, if found to be fake, contaminated or adulterated, can be recalled using the Batch Number of the products during the dates in which the food was manufactured and suspected to be unsafe.

“Date of manufacture” means the date on which the food becomes the product as described on the label. “Date of packaging” means the date on which the food is placed inside the package or container (tin, bottle etc.) in which it will ultimately be sold.

Storage, preparation and cooking information:

Food poisoning can occur if dangerous bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria grow in foods that have not been stored properly as per instructions on the labels. If food has to be stored in the refrigerator after opening, it is mentioned on the packaging label, ‘Refrigerate after opening.’ If this food is stored outside the fridge, it could deteriorate rapidly and would become unsafe for consumption. The label also mentions the minimum temperature at which a particular food is to be stored as heat can also cause bacteria to multiply and make food unsafe. Most consumers will look for storage conditions if it is a product they are buying for the first time and also read preparation instructions only if the product is new and they have not used it earlier.

Nutritional labeling &health goals:

Indian markets have opened up to international sellers so food labelling has taken on more importance. Another reason for the importance of food labelling is that besides providing information on the freshness of the product, the ingredients, nutritional facts and nutritional claims on labels help consumers make healthier food choices. If food manufacturers can understand consumer behavior from the kind of purchases they make and understand the needs of the consumer, then they will be able to develop products that are in demand and healthier for the consumer. This will help improve the health of a targeted consumer as is the case with fortified foods or foods specially created for pregnant and lactating mothers, senior citizens or infants. Health conscious customers read labels.

Those with high blood pressure want to avoid excessive amounts of salt while allergic people want to know if there are any ingredients in the product like peanuts if they are allergic and people with heart problems or cholesterol will want to find out how much trans-fat or cholesterol content is in the product. A survey found that about 71% of Indians take notice of packaged goods labels containing nutritional information and 59% of Indians mostly understand the nutritional panels and labels.

Nutritional Information:

The Nutritional Information on the label intends to inform the consumer of the nutritional properties of the food. It is always better that the nutritional facts are mentioned in a tabular form as:

Nutritional facts per 100 gm.   

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Logos on the label:

Logos are equally important aspects of pre-packaged food products as they indicate quality and standards. Consumers tend to look for FSSAI logo, Veg and Non-Veg logo, Agmark logo, Organic Logo, ISI Mark Logo and Radiation logo to ensure they are making the right choice to the best of their knowledge.

So the next time you are in the market and reach for a food package, make sure to read the label carefully before buying it. It has been rightly said, “Health is Wealth”. So eat healthy and live healthy.

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