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Reading Food Labels

Chloris Leung

Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD, DA)

Accredited Dietitian (AD), Hong Kong Academy of Accredited Dietitians (HKAAD)

Full member & Training & Development Officer, Hong Kong Dietitians Association (HKDA)


What is the very first thing that you would notice on a food packaging? Besides the colourful prints and fancy packaging designs that catches your eye and attracts you to buy a product, there is a whole lot more information that a food packaging can provide so consumers can make informed food choices, for health, food safety and other reasons. Here is a list of things to watch out for.

1) Name of the Food – must reflect its true nature without any kind of deceptive element

2) Name and address of manufacturer or packer – in cases of food recalls or enquires

3) Indication of durability/ date marking 

Use-by date: foods should be eaten before a certain date for health or safety reasons. Often seen in easily perishable foods (e.g. dairy products)

Best-before date: when food has a longer shelf life but less than two years. Most likely it is still safe to eat a food after its best-before date, its quality or nutritional value may have lost to some extent.

4) List of ingredients – listed in descending order by weight (the earlier an ingredient appears, the higher percentage it is used to make this food product)

Allergen information*

Food additives – they may be identified by their class name (e.g. ‘thickener’ or ‘colour’) followed by the food additive name or number (e.g. E621)

5) Statement of special conditions for storage or instructions for use – so that a food can be kept until its use-by or best-before date; directions must also be included if a food needs to be prepared before consumption for health or safety reasons.

6) Count, weight or volume – suppliers are responsible to ensure foods are labelled with accurate weights and measures.

7) Nutrition label – it is mandatory in Hong Kong for nutrition labels to include information on energy and seven core nutrients, namely protein, carbohydrates, sugars, total fat, saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids and sodium per 100 g/ mL, or per serving specified. Any claims made about certain nutrients on the packaging much also be declared.

Information for people with food allergies or intolerance*

Manufacturers must declare the presence of the follow 8 common allergens on food labels in Hong Kong:

i) Cereals containing gluten (namely wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, their hybridised strains and their products);

ii) Crustacea and crustacean products;

iii) Eggs and egg products;

iv) Fish and fish products;

v) Peanuts, soyabeans and their products;

vi) Milk and milk products (including lactose);

vii) Tree nuts and nut products;

viii) Sulphites (if added at 10 mg or more per kg of food)

These shall be highlighted in the List of ingredients, with their “common or usual name” in brackets, underlined or bold to make them being easily identified by consumers.

Another method to disclose the presence of allergens in a product is using a statement of “Contains (name of allergen(s))”. Such statement is usually placed at the end of the ingredient list.

“May contain allergens” disclaimers, or precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) are voluntary statements to guide consumers on the potential risk of contamination of one or more food allergens during production and handling.

Such warning statements may be presented in the following formats:

a) “May contain traces of (name of allergen(s))”;

b) “Contains traces of (name of allergen(s))”;

c) “Produced in a factory where (name of allergen(s)) is/are also handled.”

Some common misconceptions when reading food labels

Reduced fat/ sugar ≠ Low fat/ sugar

When a food product is claimed to be reduced fat/ sugar it does not necessarily mean it is low in fat/ sugar. Such nutrient comparative claims may be made whenever the nutrient content has a difference of 25% or greater by the same weight between the “lighter” versus the “original” version of the food.

The following table summaries the definition for “low” fat/ sugar or fat/sugar “free”:

Fat/ Sugar “free” ≠ Energy “free”

When a food makes such a nutrient content claim of being fat/ sugar “free” we tend to associate it as being healthy and contains no calories, hence we may eat them freely. Well, think again!

Caloric content of a food comes from its macronutrients – i.e. carbohydrate, protein and fat. For instance, a bottle of 100% fruit juice may claim itself fat “free”, yet it will contain carbohydrates and sugars from the fruit naturally, and most certainly will contain energy (calories). For people who are watching their weight, it is always best to check the energy content on the nutrition label.

Per 100 g/ mL ≠ per serving

The per 100 g/ mL column on a nutrition label can be a useful tool to compare the nutritional contents of similar products in the market. 

The per serving column provides nutrition information based on the portion set by the manufacturer (e.g. the suggested serving size may be 3 pieces of biscuits per individual small pack, and the whole package may contain 5 packs i.e. 15 biscuits in total). The misunderstanding lies in the fact that the amount shown per serving may not reflect actual consumption, thus one may underestimate their energy and respective nutrient intake if they have mistaken the weight per serving versus the weight of how much they have eaten.

References:

Centre for food safety: Labelling Guidelines on Food Allergens, Food Additives And Date Format

https://www.cfs.gov.hk/tc_chi/food_leg/food_leg_lgfa.html

Centre for food safety: Technical Guidance Notes on Nutrition Labelling and Nutrition Claims

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Food Standards Australia New Zealand: Labelling

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