Why do food labels exist?
When tinned food and powdered food began to be manufactured during the 19th century, food labels became necessary to help people identify the products. Labels tell us the name of the product, its quantity and its use-by date.
Photo: A tin of sweetened condensed milk, marketed since 1866 by the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company, under the name Milkmaid.
What is the use-by date?
If a label mentions ‘To be used before…’ this refers to the expiry date of the food. After this date, it may pose a risk to health. ‘Best before…’ refers to the optimal use-by date. After this date, the quality of the food is no longer guaranteed, but it can often still be eaten.
A food label must also include the list of ingredients. This specifies all the ingredients in the product, from the highest quantity to the lowest. The list also specifies food additives and allergens.
What are food additives?
Food additives include colourings, preservatives and acidifying agents. These substances are added to improve a product’s appearance, how well it keeps, its flavour or texture.
What are food colourings?
Food colourings can restore colours that may have changed during manufacturing, or emphasise existing colours and/or make food more appealing.
What are preservatives and antioxidants?
Antioxidants neutralise the action of oxygen, meaning food can be kept longer. Emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickening agents and gelling agents improve the texture of food.
Do food labels mention allergens?
Food labels must mention allergens, for example by saying that the product ‘Contains soya’.
What other information can food labels provide?
A food label may also show the product’s origin and quality assurances, as well as where and how the product was manufactured.