Why Is Reading Food Labels Important

Reading food labels will make it much easier for you to compare foods and find the foods that have the nutritional value your child needs. It will help you and your family make healthy choices about the foods you are buying.


All packaged foods come with a nutrition label meant to provide you with the information necessary to know exactly what you're eating. Understanding what's in the foods you eat helps you make healthier choices. Checking food labels also makes it easy for you to compare the nutrient content of different options. A healthy diet is crucial throughout your lifetime and paying attention to food labels is a good step toward improving your overall diet.

variety of available nutritious foods, many Americans fail to eat recommended amounts of key nutrients. For example, it's recommended that you increase your intake of dietary fiber. Aim to get 25 grams of fiber if you're female and 38 grams if you're male, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Checking food labels for the fiber content plays a role in helping you increase your intake. For instance, not all brown breads contain rich amounts of fiber, and some manufacturers use coloring to make bread look healthier, so it's crucial to read the label.

Getting the Most Out of Food Labels

It's crucial to determine your nutrition goals first, so that you can make the best use out of food labels. For example, if you're overweight, comparing the calorie content of various options allows you to choose a low-calorie, nutritious item to stay within your daily calorie goals. The information on serving size is particularly important since the nutrient information listed on a label is often for more than one serving. Another example is if you have a chronic condition. For instance, if you have high blood pressure, it's crucial to pay attention to the sodium content.

Food labels can help you limit the amount of fat, sugar and cholesterol in your diet by making it easy for you to compare one food item with another and choose the one with lower amounts. Conversely, you can use food labels to find food items higher in vitamins, fiber and protein.

The nutritional information found on a food label is based on one serving of that particular food. That is one of the most common mistakes people make when reading food labels. A food label may indicate that a food has 100 calories and only 5 grams of sugar, for example. But if you look at the number of servings, it may state three. That means that if you were to eat the entire package, you would be getting three times the amount shown on the food label. In this example, 300 calories and 15 grams of sugar. Don't be fooled, always look at what makes one serving (which the food label information is based on) and how many servings in that package!


In the European Union (EU), an intricate set of legislation and standards has been developed and implemented to ensure safety throughout the entire food chain. Perishable foods, judged from a microbiological point of view (such as cooked meat products, prepared foods and salads), display a 'use by' date on the package and should not be eaten after this date, as this could present a health risk. In addition, many foods display a ‘best before’ date, which gives an indication of the “minimum durability”, or the period during which the food retains its specific properties when properly stored. In other words, a product whose “best before” date has expired may still be safe to eat, but the manufacturer no longer guarantees the sensory properties of the product (e.g. taste, smell, appearance etc).

In a recent nationally representative survey from the UK, only half (49%) of the over 3000 respondents correctly identified the ‘use by’ date as the best measure of safety and 47% said they would never eat cooked meat beyond its 'use by' date.1 Most respondents were found to be using expiry dates as a point of reference and relying on their own judgement to decide if the food was safe to eat by smelling it (74%) or by just looking at the food (65%). In a nationally representative study from Ireland (796 respondents), only 39% of people regularly referred to the food label of a product, and of these, only half referred to the best before/use by dates on a food label.2 Other studies in the EU have reported similar findings.3-5 It should be borne in mind though that food can be contaminated with food poisoning bacteria such as Listeria and Salmonella without an odour or a change in product appearance.

Storage instructions are required on certain food products in combination with the expiry date to ensure proper handling by consumers. Food poisoning bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria can grow to levels that may cause illness if food is not stored correctly. These instructions may also indicate how to store the food once the package is opened (e.g., ‘Refrigerate after opening’). Although consumers often use storage conditions and preparation guidelines, it is usually only when they buy a new product and not when it is a product they have previously purchased. In a recent quantitative study, 1012 Irish consumers were asked to rate the importance of mandatory labelling information for pre-packaged foodstuffs.6 The majority (over 70%) regarded storage conditions and ‘instructions for use (where necessary)’ as important information on the label. In another study from Ireland, only 12% of the 796 respondents said they referred to the cooking instructions when looking at food labels and even less, 9%, regularly refer to storage instructions.2 These studies indicate that while consumers say that information on storage, preparation and cooking information of food on labels is important, they may not use this information very often.


Food labels also tell exactly what is inside the package. Just look at the list of ingredients. The first ingredient represents the ingredient with the most amount, the second ingredient is the second highest amount and so on.