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Introduction to Food Labels: What Do They Mean?

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

By Ashley Ellixson

Professor teaching students on steps of a building (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

This post does should not be construed as legal advice.

Country-of-origin labeling, genetically engineered food, all natural. If you have been to the grocery store or watched the news lately, you are sure to have heard or seen these terms. Are you confused as to what they mean or if they mean anything at all? You are not alone. Today I will cover a general overview of food labeling in the United States. Since there are an abundance of labels (whole grain, gluten free, and many others) I will unfortunately not cover every labeling issue but only a few in order to paint a picture as to what is going on in food policy presently.

Who Is in Charge of Food Labels and What Do They Entail?

Woman in a grocery store with her daughter (Image from NYTimes).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring that foods sold in U.S. interstate commerce are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically as well as in foreign countries. Foods sold only within the state they are made are not subject to Federal regulation by FDA but the laws of their respective states. It is also important to note that the labeling requirements I will discuss today do not apply to meat and poultry products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and will be discussed in a later post.

The Federal laws governing food products under FDA’s authority are the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which amended the FD&C Act, requires most foods to display nutrition labeling and certain health messages to comply with specific requirements. Food labeling requirements frequently change, as I am sure you have seen in the media or at your local grocery store. All new regulations are published in Federal Register (FR) prior to their effective date and listed in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

So now that you know who enforces food labeling and where you can find information on food labeling requirements, you might want to know what kind of requirements for food labels exist. Since there are so many different parts of a food label, let’s look at the box of cereal or milk in your kitchen. I will break its labeling down into three different, general areas: 1) ingredient lists, 2) nutrition labeling and 3) content claim labeling.

Ingredients Lists

If you are not familiar with an ingredient list, just pick up a product in your pantry or refrigerator. Every product is required to display an ingredient list on a food label listing each ingredient in descending order of predominance. For example, a can of pinto beans will have an ingredient list display that reads: “Ingredients: Pinto Beans, Water, and Salt” (21 CFR 101.4(a)). The ingredient list is required to be placed on the same label panel as the name and address of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor. (21 CFR 101.4).

In addition to general ingredient list labeling, it is important to address food allergen labeling. Under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) major food allergens (one of eight foods or food groups or its derivative) must be displayed on the food label. These major food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans — account for 90% of all food allergens. Allergens other than these eight listed are not subject to the FALCPA labeling requirements.

Nutrition Labeling

Another important issue in learning about food labeling is the requirement concerning the nutrition facts panel of products. To better understand the nutrition facts panel, allow me to walk through a sample:

Nutrition Facts of Macaroni & Cheese (Photo Credit to FDA).

1) Serving Size: The serving size is required to appear on a nutrition fact panel and standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods. Tthey are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces and then followed by a metric amount such as grams.

2) Calories and Calories from Fat: Calories and calories from fat are required to be listed on the nutrition fact panel. Calories, as most of you know, measure how much energy you get from a serving of food. The General Guide to Calories provides a general reference for calories when you look at a nutrition fact panel and is based on a 2,000-calorie diet (which is not for every individual, only a general guideline).

3) Limit These Nutrients (as the FDA describes them): The nutrients listed here are generally the ones Americans eat in adequate amounts or too much. Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat and the like may increase risks of chronic diseases. This is the reason FDA identifies them as the “limit these nutrients” area.

4) Get Enough of These: Most Americans, as determined by the FDA, do not get enough dietary fiber, Vitamin A, C, calcium, and iron in their diets. FDA requires these nutrients to be displayed on the nutrition fact panel and any other additional vitamins or nutrients are optional.

5) Understanding This Footnote at the Bottom: The statement “%DV are based on a 2,000 calorie diet” must be on all food labels. However, the remaining information in the full footnote may not be on all packaging labels, but when it does appear, it will always be the same. It does not display product information but rather recommended dietary advice for all Americans.

6) The Percent Daily Value (%DV): As noted before, the daily value is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in nutrients; even if you do not consume 2,000 calories a day, you can still get a general idea. Generally, FDA says that 5%DV or less is a low measurement of a nutrient and 20%DV or more is a high measurement of a nutrient.

Nutrient Content Claim Labeling

Grocery cart (Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg / Getty Images).

Lastly, let’s look at nutrient content claim labeling. Nutrient content claim (NCC) labeling, as defined by FDA, is a claim on a food product that directly or by implication characterizes the level of a nutrient in the food (such as low fat, high in oat bran, and low calorie). Basically, NCCs are the labels that use terms such as free, low, reduced/less, high, fortified, or enriched, among many others. The nutrient levels needed in order to use NCCs are shown here and here. Any nutrient levels not listed in the appendices are prohibited from NCCs.


Food-labeling policy is broad, confusing, and ever changing. This post is intended to give you a small sense of what food labeling entails and who actually enforces this area of the law. It is important to keep up to date on the ever changing food labeling laws to ensure your products are in align with federal and local labeling laws. I will continue to highlight areas of food labeling issues in the next few weeks. Please feel free to email me for issues that you would like to see discussed.

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