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Labels on food products, looked at from the standpoint of an expert on food labeling

I have had such inquiries as: "How do consumers use food labels?" and "How do the experts see food labels in their daily lives?" Although I'm not a professional food buyer, I definitely have a particular feeling about food labels as a food labeling expert. I therefore would like to discuss "labels on food products" in this newsletter, from the standpoint of an expert.

As far as I'm concerned, I do not pay any particular attention to food labels when buying food products in my personal life.

I just try to avoid certain ingredients, but that is for personal reasons and has nothing to do with my work. While I think "warning statements" including food allergen labeling is necessary, such needs have a lot to do with each individual situation, so the point to pay attention to is different from person to person.

My habit to check food labels and its reasons.

Due to the nature of my job, it is true that I sometimes can't help but check food labels. Engaged in the food business-from food development, validation of ingredient specifications, preparation of recipes to quality assurance- I'm personally curious about how a food label turns out to be on food products.

I guess I check a food label not for confirming the safety of the product, but for other reasons, which are closely related to the "information that affects consumers' choice of purchase".

What I concern the most is "claims" made on food label.

"Claims" here include "low sodium" or "sugar-free" which is defined as a claim by labeling regulations, as well as broadly interpreted claims such as "additive-free", "no-additives", or "use Australian-made ingredients only". Whatever the case may be, the "claims" here refer to "misleading claims" that could lead to problems.

Catchy claims

"Additive free", for example, is a catchy claim, and there are three prominent reasons why I'm concerned about such "catchy claims".

  1. In addition to a catchy claim such as mere "additive-free", the label has to give more specific information by adding for example, "additive-free (flavorings, colors, etc.). I therefore can't help but check the details contained in food labels.
    (Flavoring are categorized as a food additive in Japan)
  2. The lack of consistency of ingredients based on label claims could lead to problems. Although all claims must be accurate, I wonder about its accuracy; "Are all food additives including carry-overs well confirmed and reflected?" I therefore can't help but check the details contained in food labels.
  3. Thinking of challenges for food makers to develop or manufacture "additive-free" food products, I wonder how they manage to resolve such challenges, which make me check out the details contained in food labels.

Such my deeply ingrained habit exemplifies that we often encounter "questionable claims" on a daily basis.

Meeting consumers' needs

As mentioned above, while I check, by habit, certain information of interest provided on food labels, I do not have much other information that I personally pay attention to, at least in my case.

I thought about "why don't I check other miscellaneous information on food labels…?" It is probably because there are a number of different types of food labels and quite a few of them do not serve their intended purpose.

"PET bottle drinks" can be mentioned as a typical example; the appearance is the same but in fact an extensive variety of labels are used. Just take a look at the product name, you will be overwhelmed with the wealth of variety and their complexity.

There is also wider variation in interpretation of food labels?the mention of "place of origin" on products can be interpreted as a proof of "safety" these days.

While "easy-to-understand food labels" are anticipated, the needs of consumers are increasingly diverse. Given that food labels have always reflected the diverse needs of consumers, I think that food labels will become more and more complex in the future.

March 2015