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Food Labeling and Packaging

Packaged foods sold in the United States must have labels clearly showing their ingredients, listed in order of the percentage of the product each ingredient takes up.

All packaged foods must have on their labels a chart of “Nutrition Facts.” Here the manufacturer will indicate how many calories a serving of the product has, how much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, proteins, and various nutrients the serving has, and other values, broken down by amount and by “percentage of daily value.” The percentage relates to suggestions by the government for maximum amounts (of the bad nutrients, like saturated fats) and minimum amounts (of the good nutrients, like vitamins and minerals).

In judging the nutritional content using these labels, be careful not to confuse the amount “per serving” with the amount in the package, which usually contains many “servings.” The manufacturer, not the government, determines the serving size, often in an attempt to make the food seem as healthy as possible. Often these serving sizes are unrealistically small, even for those who are not big eaters.

Descriptive terms on food product labels such as “natural,” “healthy,” and “light” (or “lite”) have little in the way of legal meaning. Foods labeled “organic” must satisfy the requirements of one of the several (non-governmental) standards associations for organic foods and produce.

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