Table of Contents
Food labeling tells consumers about the, ingredients, and nutritional composition of packaged food for sale. Labels may also contain information about the conditions under which the food was produced. In the United States, food labeling is regulated by several federal agencies. Some labeling information is mandatory, while others is voluntary.
Food labeling is designed to protect the health and well being of consumers. It allows them to:
- know what ingredients are in the food
- determine the relative amounts of each ingredient
- determine how much of selected vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients a food contains. This information may be given either by weight OR as a percentage of a daily requirement value
- examine foods for potential allergens, additives, or ingredients that they wish to avoid
- learn about the conditions under which certain ingredients were produced (e.g. organic, free-range)
- compare the price per unit volume or weight of similar products
- determine if nutrients have been added or removed from the base food (e.g. enriched, reduced fat)
In the United States, food labeling is regulated by a great deal of very specific, complex, ever-evolving legislation. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the federal agencies most involved with food labeling issues and enforcement of food labeling laws. The USDA is responsible for the labeling of meat, poultry, and egg products. The FDA regulates the labeling most other foods, including seafood and bioengineered foods. The FDA also regulates dietary supplements and nutraceuticals. States also may regulate food labeling. For example, some states require sell-by or use-by information of food labels. When state and federal laws conflict, federal laws must be followed.
Different types of food have different labeling requirements. For example, canned or frozen foods are required to have different information on their labels than fresh meat, poultry, and fish. Fresh vegetables are usually subject to voluntary labeling unless they are being sold as “organic” produce. Legislation covers things as specific as the definitions of certain words used on the label (e.g. low fat), to the size of the print used on the label, to where certain information must be placed on the package. Milk and milk products are often subject to additional regulation by state dairy boards. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives regulates alcoholic beverages. The United States Customs Service requires certain information on processed foods that are imported into the U.S. This entry discusses general aspects of food labeling, with the understanding that there are complications and exceptions to almost every aspect of food labeling requirements.
Basic mandatory information
Both the FDA and the USDA require certain information to be listed in English on the label of
packaged food available for sale. This information includes:
- Name of the product. Laws regulating what some products may be called based on their content and processing. This explains why some substances that look like cheese are called “cheese food“or “processed cheese product,” and some juice-like products are called “fruit drinks” or “fruit beverages” and not juice
- Net quantity. This is the amount of food by weight in the package. It does not include the weight of the packaging. Meat and poultry labels are required to give the weight in Imperial(avoirdupois) measures such as pounds or ounces. Other foods are required to give the weight in both English and metric (grams, kilograms) units
- serving size and number of servings the package contains, except for single-serving packages
- Nutrition facts. Calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron must be listed for a single serving of the food. This information is not required on fresh meat, fresh poultry, fresh seafood, or fresh fruit and vegetables
- ingredient list. Every ingredient must be listed in order from the greatest to least by weight. There are exceptions for certain artificial colors and flavorings which may be listed generically by terms like “artificial coloring.”
- Name of manufacturer or distributor. In some cases a full street address also is required
Supplemental required information
Certain foods are required to have additional information on the label. Some of these requirements are listed below.
- Foods containing the fat replacer olestra must state this on the label. See the entry on fat replacers for additional information
- Foods containing sorbital or mannitol, both artificial sweeteners must list the amount
- Foods packaged under pressure must indicate the contents are under pressure
- Juices that have not been completely pasteurized must state they have not been completely processed
- Foods containing raw or not ready-to-eat meat or poultry products must be labeled as such
- Juices must show the percent real juice the product contains (e. g. 100% grapefruit juice.”
- Imported foods must list their country of origin
- Foods to which vitamins and minerals have been added must be labeled as enriched with the appropriate nutrient(s)
Optional label information
Certain information on food labels is optional. However, any optional information on the label must follow set guidelines and not be misleading. Foods that are labeled as “low fat,” “:reduced calorie,” “sugar free,” or that make similar claims must meet the official FDA definition of these words (see below). Foods may list a specific amount of a particular nutrient, such as “:3 grams of carbohydrates,” so long as it is not done in a misleading way. The FDA must approve any health claims the label makes that relate a specific ingredient to a specific disease (such as calcium helping to prevent osteoporosis).
Reading a food label
The many descriptive words on a food label cannot be used unless they meet very specific legal requirements. Some of the common descriptions found on FDA-regulated foods are listed below.
- Fat-free: less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving
- Low fat: no more than 3 grams or less of fat per serving
- Less fat: A minimum of 25% less fat than the comparison food
- Light (fat) A minimum of 50% less fat than the comparison food
- Cholesterol-free: Less than 2 mg of cholesterol and 2 g of saturated fat per serving
- Low cholesterol: no more than 20 mg of cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat per serving
- Reduced calorie: A minimum of 25% fewer calories than the comparison food
- Low calorie: No more than 40 calories per serving
- Light (calories): A minimum of one-third fewer calories than the comparison food
- Sugar-free: Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving
- Low sodium: No more than 140 mg of sodium per serving
- Very low sodium: No more than 35 mg of sodium per serving
- High fiber: 5 or more grams of fiber per serving
- High, rich in, excellent source of: 20% or more of the Daily Value of the nutrient
- Good source of: 10% or more of the Daily Value of the nutrient than the comparison food
- Less, fewer, reduced: 25% or less of the named nutrient than the comparison food
The USDA also has specific requirements for words used in labeling meat and poultry. Some of these include:.
- Certified: inspected, evaluated, graded, and approved the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
- Free-range or free-roaming: indicates that the animals have access to the outdoors
- Frozen (poultry): The temperature of the raw meat is 0 °F or lower
- Halal: prepared at a federally inspected meat-packing plant that also is overseen by an Islamic authority and meets the requirements of Islamic dietary law
- Kosher: prepared at a federally inspected meat-packing plant that also is overseen by an Rabbi and meets the requirements of Jewish dietary law
- Natural: containing no artificial ingredients or added color and processed in a way that does not alter the raw product
- oven prepared: the item is cooked and ready to eat without additional cooking
- oven ready: the item is uncooked, but is ready to cook without additional preparation
Consumers may also see a USDA grade on the label of cuts of beef and lamb. Pork, veal, and mutton are also graded, but the grades are not usually shown on store packaging. All USDA graded meat is inspected and wholesome, but some grades are more tender and better suit to certain cooking methods than others.
- Prime: the highest quality and most tender and juicy cuts, but also the most expensive. Prime cuts contain the most fat. They make excellent steaks and roasts
- Choice: very tender, juicy, and flavorful. This is the most popular grade of meat sold in the United States
- Select: very lean with less fat. These cuts are best suited to long, moist cooking methods such as soups and stews
Two other lower grades of beef, standard and commercial, are sometimes sold as ungraded “store brand” meats. These cuts are wholesome and nutritious, but tend to be tougher and dryer than the higher grades. Utility, cutter, and canner beef, the lowest of the eight grades, are almost never seen in stores. These cuts of meat are used to make ground beef, hot dogs, and other processed meat products.
Understanding the nutrition facts panel
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 and subsequent revisions require certain nutritional information be clearly displayed on many foods. It does not apply to meat and poultry, raw fruits and vegetables, ready-to-eat food such as cookies or cakes sold at a bakery, food sold by sidewalk vendors, and a few other exceptions. Counter cards instead of packaging labels provide voluntary nutrition information for many common fruits, vegetables, raw seafood, and wild game or exotic meats (e.g. ostrich). The nutrition facts panel is designed to encourage health eating. It gives consumers a way to compare the nutritional value of products and to see how specific products can meet their dietary needs.
The nutrition facts panel consists of several sections. The serving size is given in both a familiar units such as cups or ounces and in metric units. Serving sizes are standardized for similar foods, so that consumers can make easy comparisons. If the package contains a single serving, the serving size is not required. Under the serving size the servings per container lists the total number of servings contained in the package.
All information listed below the servings per container is given per single serving. People who eat more than one serving will take in more calories and nutrients than the amount listed on the label. Calories and calories from fat, the first nutrient listed, give the consumer a quick idea of how much energy the food provides and how healthful it is (or isn’t).
The next section of the nutrient facts panel deals with specific nutrients. The information is given by weight in metric units (grams or mg) and as a percent daily value. The percent daily value shows how much of each nutrient the food contributes toward meeting the daily recommended amount of each specific nutrient. Percent daily values are based on the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of the nutrient for a person who is eating a 2,000-calorie diet. Percent daily values of 5% or less are considered low and values of 20% or greater are considered high.
The nutrients listed next on the panel are ones that Americans generally eat enough or too much of and that they should try to limit. The first of these are total fat, saturated fat and trans fat. High consumption of saturated fat and trans fat are linked to the development of cardiovascular disease. People should try to consume as little of these fats as possible. Trans was not part of the original nutrient facts panel, but was added beginning January 1, 2006. Not enough information is available to calculate a percent daily value for trans fat. Cholesterol and sodium complete the list of nutrients that Americans consume in large amounts and should try to consume less of.
At the bottom of the label, percent daily values, but no weights, are listed for four nutrients: vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, and iron. These percentages give consumes an idea how low or high the food is in these particular nutrients.
Larger labels have a footnote at the very bottom. The information in this footnote is the always same regardless of the type of food in the package. The footnote explains that the percent daily values are calculated based on a 2,000 calorie diet, and that an individual’s needs may be greater or less than the listed percent daily value depending on the individual’s energy (calorie) needs. The footnote then gives dietary guidance by showing the maximum recommended grams of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and the minimum grams of carbohydrates and dietary fibers a person on a 2,000 or 2,500-calorie diet should consume. This guidance is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. Whether this footnote is included in the label depends on the space is available. By using all the information available on food labels, consumers can make informed decision about the nutritional content of what they eat and maintain a healthy diet.
Labeling requirements change occasionally as more research becomes available, There is a two-year phase-in period whenever labeling requirements are changed. This eases the financial impact on companies whose products require new labels. Occasionally labels will not reflect all the most recent regulations. In 2007, regulations that would require soluble dietary fiber to be listed on food labels were under consideration.
Special labeling requirements are in effect for foods designed to consumed mainly by children age four and younger. See the entry on infant nutrition for additional details.
McCarthy, Rose. Food labels: Using Nutrition Information to Create a Healthy Diet. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 2005.
Stewart, Kimberly L. Eating Between the Lines: The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
“Consumer Info Quest Gives Marketers Food for Thought.” Marketing Week (March 22, 2007): 24.
Kuchment, Anna. “What’s on Your Label? (food Labels)” Newsweek(March 12, 2007):63.
Welland, Diane. “Red-flagging Food Labels: 8 Tips to Sift Fact From Fiction.” Environmental Nutrition 303 (March 2007):2.
United States Department of Agriculture. 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Room 1180, Washington, DC 20250. Website: <http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome>.
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements. 5100 Paint Branch Parkway, College Park, Maryland 20740. Fax: 301-436-2639. Website: <http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/>.
Larson, Heather and Gina Kemp. “Nutrition Fact Labels: Understanding DVs, RDAs, and DRIs.” Helpgui-de.org, February 5, 2007. <http://www.helpguide.org/life/food_labels_nutrition_facts.htm>.
United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture. “.
United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.” January 12, 2005. <http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines>.
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Food Labeling and Nutrition.” February 6, 2007. <http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/label.html>.
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “How to Understand and Use the Food Nutrition Facts Label.” November 2004. <http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/label.html>.
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Questions and Answers About Trans Fat Nutrition Labeling” January 1, 2006. <http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/qatrans2.html>.
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “The Food Label” May 1999. <http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdnewlab.html>.
“What’s in a Food Label?” Healthchecksystems.com, undated, accessed March 26, 2007. <http://www.healthcheckssystems.com/label.htm>
National Organic Program. “Organic Food Standards &Labels: The Facts.” United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, January 2007.
United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms.” August 24, 2006. <http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Meat_&_Poultry_Labeling_Terms/index.asp>.
Tish Davidson, A.M.