Food labels are one of many things vying for your attention. Here's why reading them could improve your health and the health of the environment.
The food we buy at the grocery store is part of a complex worldwide food system responsible for our health and the environment's health. Many products come with labels that give the reader a tremendous amount of information. Unfortunately, people often ignore most or all of them. Instead, they buy out of habit or based on a marketing campaign. However, these labels are important and can help you make decisions that affect more than just the taste and enjoyment of your next meal.
Nutritional Information Is Not Just Academic
The nutritional labels give you the most critical information for your overall health and well-being. The FDA has determined what constitutes a "well-balanced" nutritional intake for most people, and the label can help you build a diet that satisfies your body's requirements. These labels tell you calories are in a serving but also provide information on essential vitamins and minerals.
These labels help you build a diet that supports a healthy weight by offering the correct number of calories from fat, carbohydrates, and protein. In addition, you can ensure that all your body's systems get the nutrients they need to support healthy organ and hormone function. Maintaining a healthy weight without being deficient in essential minerals or vitamins reduces your risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and many other diseases.
Some Food Allergies Are Serious
Healthy diets are complicated. This is especially true for people with food allergies. Between 10-15% of the population in developed countries exhibit reactions to food, some potentially fatal. The most common problematic ingredients are tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, and wheat. Reading the ingredients of everything you buy can prevent you or someone in your family from having an adverse reaction to a hidden allergen.
Stay Healthy and Safe – Use the ingredients list and nutritional information to build yourself the perfect diet.
Labels Help You Prepare and Store Your Food
600 million people get food-related illnesses every year, and 420,000 die. Luckily, many foods have labels with information about proper cleaning, preparation, and storage. For example, foods with a short shelf life like meat, fish, and poultry should be cooked to a specific temperature before being eaten or frozen before a certain date. Following all preparation and storage instructions will reduce the chances of food becoming infected with harmful bacteria or other pathogens.
A Little Reading Prevents A Lot of Waste
Unfortunately, many people do not understand some of the most common labelings they see on food, mainly "sell by" and "best by" dates. Confusion leads people who are (rightfully) concerned about food safety to waste a tremendous amount of perfectly edible, healthy food.
Food dating labels are unregulated for quality in the US (except for baby formula). The "best by" and "sell by" dates are when you can expect the food to come down from peak freshness and flavor. The best determiner of whether food is safe to eat will always be the human senses. Avoid it if it has changed color or has a rotten smell or taste.
New Labels Inform Eco-Friendly Shopping
Many food producers have added "ecolabels" to their products, offering information about which sustainable methods, technologies, or resources they used to make the food. These labels allow consumers to make more informed decisions about where their money goes and what impact it can have on the environment and food system. Furthermore, companies will change their practices once we incentivize businesses that earn and display ecolabels. They don't want to miss out on their share of an increasingly eco-conscious market.
Keep it Local
Labels denoting the geographic origin of foods have been around for decades. For example, Darjeeling tea comes from India, while 100% Kona Coffee originates in Hawaii. Over time, the market has assigned specific characteristics like quality or flavor to certain locations.
Unfortunately, according to the FAO, this has led to a food system that pays 20-50% more to ship products from abroad. Paying a premium to import food removes that capital from the local economy, leaving many small producers unable to increase product quality, support larger workforces, and reinvest their own wealth in the community. Consumers can start prioritizing locally labeled foods to support growers in their area.
Food Labels Empower Consumers
The next time you grab something to throw in the shopping cart, read the labels. What do they tell you about the food? Your health, safety, and wallet benefit from the basic labeling. However, many new labels give information about more than ingredients and serving sizes. They show you what you need to decide how you will use your money to support the rise of a sustainable food system.
Key Marketing Takeaways
Stay Healthy and Safe – Use the ingredients list and nutritional information to build yourself the perfect diet. Diet is tied to health, mood, and productivity, so if you want to be your best self, use food labels to build a healthy, balanced diet.
Don't Overbuy – The serving size, net weight, and "best by" date can help you decide how much to buy and how often. Think carefully about how often you will eat something and try to buy only enough to cover that amount before it passes the date you no longer feel comfortable eating it.
Be Mindful – Your health and the planet's health both depend on the food system. If that system is not sustainable, neither is health. Food labels empower you to make decisions that affect incentive structures throughout the system. Do your part to support something that will build healthy bodies, economies, and societies.