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Food labels

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Information about the product

Why do food labels exist?
In the 19th century, new products were developed, such as tinned food and powdered products. Food labels became indispensable to help consumers identify what was inside these products.

Labels must include the name of the product, also known as the sales description, as well as the net weight and the 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. Thereafter, the taste, consistency and even nutritional value of the product may vary, but the product can often still be eaten.

What is the list of ingredients?
The label must also include the list of ingredients. This specifies all the ingredients in the product, listed 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 may be natural or synthetic. They are added to improve a product’s appearance, how well it keeps, its flavour or consistency. Additives must be indicated by category and by their scientific name or their European symbol.

In Europe, additives are identified by the letter E followed by a 3-figure number. The E stands for Europe and the 3 figures correspond to a category of additives.

What are food colourings?
Food colourings belong to the E100 range. The figure 1 indicates the category (colourings) and the following two figures indicate the colour or shade. E120 is a red food colouring.

Food colourings are used to restore colours that may have altered during the manufacturing process, or to emphasise existing colours and/or to make food more appealing.

What are preservatives and antioxidants?
The E200 range corresponds to preservatives and the E300 range to antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralise the action of oxygen, so food keeps longer. The E400 range of emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickening agents and gelling agents improve a product’s texture.

Do food labels mention allergens?
Allergens must be stated on food labels, for example mentioning that the product ‘Contains soya’. Wording such as ‘May contain traces of nuts’ or ‘May include soya’ is used whenever a product manufacturing or storage site is also used for another product which may contain allergens, so there may be a risk of contamination with traces of allergens.

What other information can food labels provide?
A food label may also show the product’s origin, quality assurances, instructions for use, the manufacturer’s name and address and/or a reference identifying the manufacturing site and batch.
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