Read Your Labels . . . But Understand Them Too

Adapted by Lindsey Loving and Sarah Romotsky, RD from a blog by Melissa Ciampo, University of Maryland Dietetic Intern, originally published on 9/6/12

April 11, 2013

Today has been designated by one consumer group as National "Read Your Labels" Day, intended to encourage consumers to read the labels of the foods and beverages they buy. While we agree it is important for consumers to read the labels on food packaging, it is equally as important to understand food labels. After all, it's not just about looking at the label to see if you recognize ingredients, since many ingredients are unfamiliar because they are listed by their scientific names. The real goal is to understand what these ingredients are and why they are in our food, so that you can put your questions about ingredients to rest.

Research from the IFIC Foundation's 2012 Food and Healthy Survey found that 51% of consumers read the ingredients list on the labels of food and beverage packages to make purchasing decisions. This leads us to wonder... how many people actually know the purposes and functions behind these ingredients? Additional insights from the Survey indicate low to moderate awareness of the functions and benefits of many common food ingredients.

A great resource for understanding the role of food ingredients is IFIC Foundation's brochure, "What's in Our Food: Understanding Common Food Ingredients." This new resource includes an overview of the functions of ingredients in our food, how food ingredients are regulated, why they sometimes have long scary names, and a list of common ingredients.

Increasing awareness and learning to decipher the ingredient list is a useful skill from which everyone can benefit. Here are some of the categories of ingredients you'll find in the ingredients list:

  • Colors (improve visual appeal)
  • Flavorings (improve taste)
  • Oils (improve taste and provide texture)
  • Preservatives (maintain or improve safety and freshness)
  • Stabilizers (provide texture)
  • Sweeteners (improve taste)
  • Thickeners (provide texture)

For examples of each, check out the What's in Our Food one-pager, which has a quick-reference list on the back of common food ingredient functions and sources, which you can print out and take with you to the grocery store!

Now, I know what you're thinking... ingredients on the label may seem unappealing at first glance because of their long scary names. However, these scientific names are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In reality, most ingredients are much more common than you may realize.

You might be surprised to discover that items you encounter on a daily basis are being disguised behind their scientific names. For instance, baking soda is commonly listed as sodium bicarbonate, while vitamin E is listed as tocopherols. Other examples include calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5) and beta-carotene (vitamin A). Not so scary after all!

So rest assured that these names are not intended to stump you, but merely follow the rules set out by government agencies. 

All ingredients in a food or beverage are required to be listed on the label on the food or beverage package. This is true whether they are already present in the food or added, and whether they are man-made ingredients or "natural." Other information you'll find on the label includes:

  • Nutrition information
  • Serving size and number of servings
  • Allergen information|

So remember, if you want to know what's in your food, read the label and it will tell you what you need to know!

Additional resources on food ingredients can be found on the Food Ingredient Hot Topic Page.