Munich. The functions of food packaging are to protect food products, inform consumers and encourage customers to buy the products. However, many consumers are sceptical, asking: Can we really trust the information provided on the front and back of the pack? This question is as understandable as it is difficult to answer, but the information provided in the small print may help. The list of ingredients is a source of information on pre-packed food regulated by law. Given this, TÜV SÜD's experts advise consumers to consult it more often to see at a glance which substances are included in their food.
In view of the plethora of information provided on food packaging, many consumers find it difficult to gain a fast and concise overview of the ingredients of a food product. However, the composition of ingredients is crucial for the taste, quality and – consequently – also the price of a food product. "The list of ingredients supplies core details about the material quality of a food product", says Dr Andreas Daxenberger, food expert at TÜV SÜD. According to the law, information provided on a food pack must be correct and not mislead consumers. However, manufacturers also have a lot of freedom in the design of packaging – a fact that is evident from the vast number of advertising elements included on food packs.
Manufacturers love creative product names, providing the legally correct sales name in fine print. But a lot more information can be found in the list of ingredients, which lists the key substances included in the recipe of the final product in descending order of weight. Daxenberger comments, "The substances that head the list are the main ingredients of the food product. Consumers can see at a glance whether a food product is, say, high in energy, or which ingredients determine the value of the product." The most common allergens – irrespective of their weight – must also be included on the list, such as gluten-containing cereals, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts and soybeans. From December 2014 onwards, they must also be declared on loose, non-pre-packed food.
However, food-packaging regulations are far too comprehensive to serve as a basis for rapid, clear comparison between products in the supermarket. For example, additives that are included in the individual ingredients but do not have any technological effect on the final product need not be included on the list of ingredients, a fact criticised by many consumer institutions. Nevertheless, the list of ingredients is essential as a way of gaining fast information. As the size of a pack does not allow any conclusions to be drawn concerning the contents, an indication of the net quantity is mandatory. To ensure clear traceability, the name and address of the company responsible for the product is also imperative. While almost all manufacturers also include nutritional information, these details are only obligatory from December 2016 onwards, when they must be included on every pack.
The best-before date is considered to be another key information item for most food products. It informs consumers how long they can expect to enjoy the product without any loss in quality. Exceptions to the above rule are food products with extremely long shelf lives such as salt, sugar and vinegar. Discussions are currently under way to include foods like dry pasta, rice and tea in these exceptions, to reduce the amount of food thrown away without good reason. Many food products are still perfectly safe to eat after expiry of the best-before date. However, it is a different matter for highly perishable food products such as pre-packaged minced meat. In this case, the law requires a "use-by" (UB) date. After expiry of the UB date, consumers should no longer eat the product as they mostly cannot judge for themselves whether bacteria may have accumulated in the product or whether the product is still safe to eat.