Decoding Food Packaging: What Do the Labels Really Mean?

Decoding Food Packaging: What Do the Labels Really Mean?

Food packaging is full of stamps, tables and lots of promises. What is reality and what is advertising? Here we reveal some clues

Many people want to eat healthy. That, at least, is what emerges from a nutrition report by the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture. No wonder, then, that food manufacturers label their products with seals, attractive images and claims that suggest to users that they have made a healthy choice by buying a certain product.

However, the number of overweight people and diet-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease, is increasing worldwide, especially in industrialized and emerging countries. That is, where supermarket shelves are full.

Is the information on food packaging misleading? “There are often no general answers,” says Daniel Wefers, professor of food chemistry at Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg.

What does it mean that a food is organic?

The good news is that foods that are labeled “organic” are indeed organic. Now, according to Wefers, the real question is what exactly that means.

In principle, the word “organic” refers only to the form and method of production. In Germany, there is some laxity in the criteria for labeling a product as organic. For example, the fertilizers and pesticides used or the space the animals have on the farms vary greatly from one producer to another, and they can all carry the organic label.

On the other hand, the user immediately associates organically grown food with sustainability and environmental protection, as well as a healthier diet. But that correlation “is not so simple,” says Wefers.

The power of images

The image of a cow grazing in a green meadow printed on the milk carton and the picture of berries on the wrapper of a fruit bar also reassure us that we have made a good purchase, making us believe that the cow has a nice life and the fruit bar is full of vitamins.

“But, if you read the ingredient list carefully, the bar may contain only a small percentage of the advertised fruit,” says Wefers.

The order of ingredients is crucial

The ingredient list provides information about how healthy a bar or chocolate hazelnut spread is. First of all, the order in which the ingredients are listed is decisive: “The ingredient listed first is the one that is contained in the product in the greatest quantity,” Wefers clarifies.

Hazelnuts are not the main ingredient in cocoa cream, but sugar and fat. If the ingredient list says “sugar,” it means table sugar, the so-called sucrose. But sugar is also behind names like lactose or fructose, in fact it hides behind 70 different terms, so it is difficult to determine its total content. The longer the list of ingredients, the more difficult it is for users to understand what exactly is in the product and in what quantity.

Complicated additive names and a series of numbers starting with the letter E quickly give us the feeling that we are dealing with a chemical bomb. However, Wefers reassures us: “Such additives do not make a food bad per se, as most of them are only contained in comparatively small amounts in the product”.

The expert also doesn’t fully understand some users’ concerns about an additive such as glutamate. “Glutamate is naturally present in many foods, for example, about 1% in Parmesan cheese.” Apart from the fact that there are many additives that are of natural origin.

The best information, in the nutritional table

In the end, it is best to abstract from labels such as “no sugar added”, “organic” or “100% juice direct”, and look at other information. “The nutrition table provides the best information on macronutrients,” explains Daniel Wefers.

In it, the total sugar content is given in percentages. In addition, the nutrition table indicates the product’s energy, i.e. kilocalories per 100 grams. Although Daniel Wefer finds it difficult to make general statements about foods, one thing is clear to him: “If the fiber content of a food is high, that’s a good thing”. Incidentally, there is plenty of fiber in vegetables, which don’t need pictures or ingredient lists to sell.