How to read food labels


What do you look for when you read a food label? Fat content, calories, ingredients, brand name?
If so, you're not alone. A 1993 Food Marketing Institute survey of 1,000 U.S. shoppers found that such information was sought by most label readers. Fat content was No. 1, followed closely by ingredients, calories, and other nutrient information.

But not everyone read the label for nutrition information. A few said they read it to learn the brand name, expiration date, or package weight.

Their responses show just how diverse label information has become. Some of the information, such as the manufacturer's name and address, is required. Some, such as health claims and terms that describe a food's nutrient content, is voluntary. Much of it is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates labeling of meat and poultry. FDA regulates labeling of all other foods, including game meats.)
Some information has just been--or soon will be--added to the label. This is the result of two laws that become effective in 1994: the American Technology Preeminence Act of 1991, which took effect Feb. 14, and the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA), which goes into effect May 8 (although some manufacturers have already started to relabel their products).

Under the Technology Preeminence Act, food manufacturers have to list the not contents of their products in both metric units and inch and pound units.
Regulations implemented under NLEA will require:
nutrition information on almost all foods
a new format for presenting nutrition information
set definitions for nutrient claims, such as "low-fat" and "high-fiber"
appropriate use of seven scientifically proven claims about the relationship between a nutrient or food and reducing the risk of a disease or health-related condition

ingredient listing on all foods with two or more ingredients.

The changes--the most extensive in food labeling history--are designed to make label information more complete, useful and accurate than ever before. Soon, consumers will not only be able to know more about the foods they eat but will also have more confidence in what they read on the label.

Here's a rundown of today's food label.

A Two-Panel Label

A food package usually has at least two distinct areas: the principal display panel, or PDP, and the information panel.
The PDP is the part of the label consumers see first when they purchase a product. So, in almost all cases, the PDP is the front of the package. This is where FDA requires the name of the product and the net quantity of contents statement.
The information panel is usually to the immediate right of the PDP. It is reserved for the nutrition information; ingredient list-, and name and address of the manufacturer, packer or distributor. If there's insufficient space on the information panel for these three pieces of information, they then can be divided between the PDP and the information panel.
Also, these three items of information may be separated from each other on packages with less than 40 square inches available for labeling. On these packages, the nutrition facts may be moved to another panel if there is insufficient space for it on the information panel.

FDA has proposed to allow the nutrition facts on larger packages to be moved to other panels. too, if there is insufficient space on the PDP or information panel for all of the required information.

Nevertheless, each of these items of information is considered one piece, and as a general rule they cannot be broken up with intervening material. For example, a Universal Product Code (UPC) cannot appear in the middle of the nutrition facts. And a health claim or product trademark cannot appear in the middle of the ingredient list.

Food Name

The name of a food is called the "statement of identity." It's easy to spot because it's one of the principal features of the principal display panel. It must be in English, although foreign language versions may accompany it. Its common or usual name also must be given for example, whole kernel corn, "honey." or "tuna packed in spring water." When appropriate, it must describe the form of the food, too, such as "sliced peaches" or peaches."

A brand name can serve as the statement of identify if the name is commonly used and understood by the public to refer to a specific food--for example, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola.

Net Quantity

The net quantity of contents statement helps consumers in two ways: First, it lets consumers know how much food is in a container, and second, it aids in price comparison.

It refers only to the quantity of food (including any liquid or juice usually eaten in which the food may be packed) in a package or container. It does not include the weight of the container or wrappers.

Shoppers will find the net quantity of contents statement in the lower third of the principal display panel.
Starting in 1994, the net quantity of contents wilt have to be stated in both inch or pound units and metric units. Many companies are already complying with this requirement. On the label, the statement would appear like this: Net Wt 8 oz (226 g). ("Oz" is an abbreviation for ounces and "g" for grams.)

Also, instead of the term "weight," manufacturers may choose to use "mass" when stating the quantity of a solid food. "Net content" will continue to be one of the optional terms for liquid foods.

Manufacturers may voluntarily continue to state the net quantity of contents in a dual manner for the inch or pound units-for example, 20 fluid ounces (1 1/4 pint)-but they no longer will be required to do so.

Nutrition Facts

Starting in May 1994, almost every food will have to carry information about its nutritional content. (See "Good Reading for Good Eating" in the May 1993 FDA Consumer.) This information will come under the heading "Nutrition Facts."
This title will replace "Nutrition Information Per Serving," which is required under the current nutrition labeling program, established in the mid-1970s. Under this program, nutrition labeling is required only for foods with added nutrients or whose labels bear nutrition claims.

(For more information about nutrition labeling, see "`Nutrition Facts' to Help Consumers Eat Smart" and "`Daily Values' Encourage Healthy Diet" in the May 1993 FDA Consumer.)


The ingredient list helps consumers identify foods that have substances they are allergic to or want to avoid for other reasons. It also helps them select foods with ingredients they want.

An ingredient list will be required on all packaged foods composed of two or more ingredients, even standardized foods (which previously had to list only optional ingredients). Foods with two or more discrete units, such as cherry pie--which has filling and pie crust--may have a separate ingredient list for each of the units.

Ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight. This gives consumers an idea of the proportion of an ingredient in a food.

(For more information, see "Ingredient Labeling: What's in a Food?" in the April 1993 FDA Consumer)

Company Name

A food label must identify the firm responsible for the product (either the manufacturer, packer or distributor) and the firm's city, state and zip code (or another mailing code if the product is imported). A street address is not required if the name is listed in a current telephone book. A telephone number is not mandatory.
The required information is there mainly so that consumers have a point of contact if they find something wrong with the product.

Product Dates

Consumers can use the dates that are given on food packaging if the manufacturer is using "open dating." On the other hand, consumers cannot use "code dating."

In open dating, dates are stated alphanumerically, such as "Oct. 15," or numerically, such as " 10-15" or " 1015." In code dating, the information is coded in letters, numbers and symbols so that usually only the manufacturer can translate it.
Some dates for which open dating is used are:

Pull date. This is the last day that the manufacturer recommends that the product remain for sale. This date takes into consideration additional time for storage and use at home, so if the food is bought on the pull date, it still can be eaten at a later date. How long the product should be offered for sale and how much home storage is allowed are determined by the manufacturer, based on knowledge of the product and the product's shelf life.

Quality assurance or freshness date. This date shows how long the manufacturer thinks a food will be of optimal quality. On the label, it may appear like this: "Best if used by October 1994." This doesn't mean, however, that the product shouldn't be used after the suggested date.

Pack date. This is the date the food was packaged or processed. It may enable consumers to determine how old a product is.

Expiration date. This is the last (lay on which a product should be eaten. State governments regulate these dates for perishable items, such as milk and eggs. FDA regulates only the expiration dates of infant formula.
A common type of code dating is the product code. This code enables the manufacturer to convey a relatively large amount of information with a few small letters, numbers and symbols. It tells when and where a product was packaged. In the case of a recall, this makes it easier to quickly identify and track down the product and take it off the market. FDA encourages manufacturers to put product codes on packaging, especially for products with a long shelf life.

Health Claims

FDA now allows manufacturers to make certain claims linking the effect of a nutrient or food to a disease or health-related condition. Only claims supported by scientific evidence are allowed. And they can be used only under certain conditions, such as when the food is an adequate source of the appropriate nutrients.

The claims may show a link between: a diet with enough calcium and a lower risk of osteoporosis

a diet low in total fat and a reduced risk of some cancers
a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease
a diet rich in fiber-containing grain products, fruits and vegetables and a reduced risk of some cancers
a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and grain products that contain fiber and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease
a diet low in sodium and a reduced risk of high blood pressure
a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and a reduced risk of some cancers.

In addition, FDA has proposed allowing a claim for folic acid and a reduced risk of neural tube defects in offspring. While this claim is now authorized on dietary supplements, the agency expects to issue a final rule on the use of this claim on all foods in the near future.

Consumers can use these claims to identity foods with desirable nutritional qualities. They will probably find a reference to the claim on the front label, but the claim itself may appear elsewhere on the label.

(For more information, see "Starting This Month. Look for `Legit' Health Claims on Foods" in the May 1993 FDA
Nutrient Content Claims

Besides the seven health claims, FDA also has set conditions for the use of terms that describe a food's nutrient content. Eleven basic terms have been defined that relate to several nutrients. They are:

free low reduced fewer
lean high less more
extra lean good source light

The term "sodium free," for example, means that the food contains less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving of the food.

These terms "ill probably appear on the front label, although manufacturers may place them on other parts of the label, too. Like health claims these terms also can help consumers quickly spot foods with a desirable nutrient content.
(For more information, see "A Little `Lite' Reading" in the June 1993 FDA

Other Information

Other types of information may appear on the food label. Among them:

Grades and standards. Some foods such as milk, butter, orange juice, and meat--carry a grade on their label that attests to their quality. The grades show up as letters, Such as AA, A, and B for eggs, words, such as "choice" and "select" for meat, or "substandard" for some canned vegetables: or as some kind of logo or mark, such as the Grade A shield on orange-juice containers. Such foods sold in grocery stores usually carry the highest grades given. USDA establishes some of, these standards for foods, such as meat, butter, eggs, and fruit juices. FDA has standards fora number of foods, including canned vegetables. The National Marine Fisheries Service grades fish on a fee-for-service basis.
Trademarks and copyrights. The symbol "R" on a label indicates that a trademark used on the label is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A "C" means that the literary or artistic work of the label is protected under U.S. copyright laws.

Religious symbols. Any number or more than 50 symbols may appear on foods to indicate that the food has been processed according to Jewish dietary laws. One of the more common is a letter "U" inside the letter "O." This means that the food has been authorized as "kosher" by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. FDA does not rate any of these symbols.

Universal Product Code. The UPC is a bar code with a 10-digit number. It is used with computerized grocery store checkout equipment to give an automated inventory system. The Uniform Code Council Inc., of Dayton, Ohio, monitors this system.

Safe Food Handling Instructions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed requiring safe handling, and cooking instructions on raw meat and poultry products. These instructions would state that "some food products may combine bacteria that could cause an illness if the product is mishandled or cooked improperly." They also would give tips on safe storage of raw products, prevention of cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods, safe cooking procedures. And handling of leftovers. The proposed requirements may go into effect this year.
DIAGRAM: Anatomy Of A Food Label.

PHOTO: Photo of woman reading food label.
PHOTO: One Source for Food Labeling Info...

The articles cited here, as well as other FDA Consumer stories about the new food label, are available in the FDa Consumer special report Focus on Food Labeling. Copies are $5 each and can be ordered from the Government Printing Office. Write to: Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954. As for publication number FDA 93-2262.
By Paula Kurtzweil

Paula Kurtzweil is a member of FDA's public affairs staff.


The order number for the FDA Consumer special report Focus on Food Labeling was incorrectly stated in "New Food Label Close-Up" in the April 1994 FDA Consumer. The correct number is S/N 017-012-00360-5. Orders should be addressed to Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7594.


A Nutrition Facts panel shown in a diagram in "Food Label Close-Up" in the April 1994 FDA Consumer failed to give complete nutrition information. Missing was information about the food's polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat con tent per serving. This information is required when a claim is made about the food's fatty acid or cholesterol content. For the product shown in the article, graham crackers, "no cholesterol" and "low saturated fat" claims appeared on the front of the package. Thus, the Nutrition Facts should have included the information polyunsaturated fat 1g [grams]" and monounsaturated fat 1g."

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Since 1994, the FDA has required these labels to be placed on most food packaging. The Nutrition Facts food labels are easy to find on the back, side or bottom of the packaging.

The black and white Nutrition Facts labels may be formatted vertically or horizontally (the vertical version is more common). Small packages may have an abbreviated version of the label.

This nutrition facts may help you more on how to gain your body in which you may know all the do's and don't in maintaining your healthy body.