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Food Label Close-Up

What do you look for first when you read a food label? Fat content, calories, serving size?

A 1997 survey of more than 1,000 adults by Food Marketing Institute and Prevention Magazine found that such information on the Nutrition Facts label was sought by most label readers. Fat content was No. 1, followed by calories, sodium content, ingredients, and saturated fat.

Their responses show just how diverse label information has become.

Some label 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 been added to the label in recent years. This is the result of two laws that became effective in 1994: the American Technology Preeminence Act of 1991 and the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA).

Under the Technology Preeminence Act, food manufacturers have to list the net contents of their products in both metric units and inch and pound units.

Regulations implemented under NLEA 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 10 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, including standardized food, with two or more ingredients.

The food label was designed to make label information complete, useful and accurate. Consumers not only are able to know more about the foods they eat but they can have 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 panel may be moved to another panel if there is insufficient space for it on the information panel.

FDA also allows the Nutrition Facts panel 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 panel. 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 PDP. 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 "whole peaches."

A brand name can serve as the statement of identity 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 PDP.

The net quantity of contents has to be stated in both inch - pound units and metric units. 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.)

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 state the net quantity of contents in a dual manner for the inch - pound units--for example, 20 fluid ounces (1 1/4 pint)--but they are not required to do so.


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 is required on all packaged foods composed of two or more ingredients, even standardized foods. Foods with two or more discrete components, such as cherry pie--which has filling and pie crust--may have a separate ingredient list for each of the components.

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

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 1996." 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 day 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 these claims 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
  • folic acid and a decreased risk of neural tube defect-affected pregnancy
  • dietary sugar alcohols and a reduced risk of dental caries
  • soluble fiber from certain foods, such as, whole oats, and psyllium seed husk, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and a reduced risk of heart disease.

Consumers can use these claims to identify 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.

Nutrient Content Claims

Besides the 10 health claims, FDA also has set conditions for the use of terms that describe a food's nutrient content. Twelve 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
  • healthy

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

These terms will 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.

Other Information

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

Grades and standards.
Some foods--such as milk, butter, eggs, 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 for a 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 of 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 regulate 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 requires safe handling and cooking instructions on raw meat and poultry products. These instructions must state that "some food products may contain 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.
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