Food Labels: General Information

I find food laws and regulations endlessly interesting but usually do not have the time or an excuse to spend the time trying to understand them. No longer as I am preparing to give a workshop on food labeling. Now I can fascinate you with the arcane and wily regulations that are behind are food labels.

In the US, food labels are regulated mostly by the FDA, unless it is meat or poultry which is the purview of the USDA. These regulations are covered by two acts of Congress:

  • The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act)
  • Fair Packaging and Labeling Act

The first is the act that covers most food regulations. As most food scientists know, food is regulated by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21. The FD&C act was first passed by Congress in 1938. One of its major roles was to set up the FDA. I do not know what the initial act said about food labels as I am interested in how food labels are regulated today so I have yet to worry about its history. The purpose of this post is to tell you what should be ON the food package. Conveniently the FDA have posted a “Food Labeling Guide: A Guidance for Industry” on the web. I used this document to help me put the rest of this post (and my seminar) together. It makes life a lot easier than searching and reading all of CFR Title 21 Part 101.

The FDA notes at the beginning of its food labeling guide that:

“This guidance represents the FDA’s current thinking on this topic. It does not create or confer any rights for or on any person and does not operate to bind FDA or the public. You can use an alternative approach if the approach satisfies the requirements of the applicable statutes and regulations.”

So make sure your label has gone through your regulations department before we catch you out having done something wrong. And if you have a better way, sure go a head AS LONG AS YOU FOLLOW the law.

General Food Labeling Requirements

On the front of the package there should be the:

  • Name of product (Statement of Identity)
  • Amount (Net weight) of product

On the side panel there should be

  • Nutrition Panel
  • Ingredient list
  • Manufacturer, distributor, suppliers information

    Food Package showing PDP and IP

As the image shows the front of the package is formally called the Principal Display Panel (PDP). The side panel to the right of the PDP or if flaps get in the way, the next usable surface to the right of the PDP is known as the information panel (IP). This must not contain any unessential information, such as a UPC or barcode.

Returning to the PDP, how can we identify our product?

The statement of identity, i.e. the name, should be prominently displayed on the PDP towards the top and is one of the following:

  1. Established by law or regulation
  2. Or in the absence of (1), the common or usual name of the food
  3. Or if neither (1) or (2) exist, then an appropriate descriptive name, that is not misleading

The food name can include a brand identity, for example, “Famous Amos Cookies[i]

In the bottom third of our PDP should be the net weight in both metric and customary US units of measure [ii]. The net weight is the amount of food in the package and is given as is, which means the amount is give as a wet weight and the weight of your package is not included.

Artwork should not obscure either the Statement of Identity or the Net Weight.

On to the informational panel:

I am going to write about the nutrition facts in detail in a later post. It does require at least a post of its own.

The ingredient list is the ingredients listed in descending order of predominance. That which weighs the most goes first on the list. For example, Unsweetened Chocolate, Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Milk Fat, Soy Lecithin – an emulsifies, Vanilla[iii].

If water is added during the manufacturing process, unless it is lost during in the process through baking for example, it must be included on the label. Water must also be listed if used to reconstitute a concentrated fruit juice. Water need not be listed if it is used to adjust the percentage of soluble solids within a stated range (i.e. tomato paste is a Brix of 28° to 24°) but it should be in the ingredient list if the tomato paste was diluted to make a lower soluble solids content tomato puree (Brix of 16° to 10°)[iv].

When preservatives are added, they should be listed on the ingredient label with their role present in parenthesis. Roles include: Preservatives should come with function given in parentheses:

  • “preservative,”
  • “to retard spoilage,”
  • “a mold inhibitor,”
  • “to help protect flavor,”
  • “to promote color retention.”

One interesting quirk about the ingredient list. You sometimes see standardized food ingredients list i.e. Chocolate Chips (unsweetened chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter) list within the list and sometimes not. The instructions are you can either list the standardized food as an ingredient with its ingredients in parenthesis or without naming the standardized food by dispersing each ingredient in its order of predominance in the ingredient statement.

This is general information for food labeling. I am sure there are some other details I have overlooked.

Coming up next: How to label organic food. Bet you cannot wait.


[i] I don’t know why I picked on Famous Amos. It could have just as easily been Kellogg’s Cornflakes or, wanders into the kitchen, Herr’s Potato Chips, Ghirardelli Chocolate (how come that package come back to the computer with me?).

[ii] I like that phraseology instead of calling them English Units which is daft – the Imperial pint (as used in England) is 22 fl oz compared to the English pint (as used in the US) which is 16 fl oz. Additionally, in the UK they are meant to be using metric units to put them in harmony* with the rest of Europe.

*If harmony can be discordant – that’s how the UK and the rest of Europe seem to get on.

[iii] See note i. That was why the chocolate followed me from the kitchen. I needed an ingredient list, yeah, right.

[iv] Soluble solids are measured as oBrix. I should write a post on this at some point.


5 thoughts on “Food Labels: General Information

  1. This is interesting. You’ll be glad to know that the Tetley Vanilla and Pear Rooibos package on my desk has followed all the instructions correctly so far. Now I need to make a cup.

  2. I would be very surprised if a large food company such as Tetley’s had it wrong. So surprised that I would be fact checking like crazy as they are more likely be right.

  3. I wish they would start listing caffeine content on the nutrition labels. Coca-cola has started putting this info on many of their products, in small sideways print on a different part of the label, but I think it would be useful to make a standard part of the nutrition data.

  4. Pingback: Food Labels 2: Organic « Lab Cat

  5. Pingback: Food Labels 3: Nutritional Facts Panel (Sort of Science Sunday) « Lab Cat

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