Food product labels empower us to make informed choices about our food consumption and health. Reading labels allows us to determine if a product is genetically modified, organic, or low calorie. Whether you’re an avid label reader or barely notice it, food labels are the result of laws that were created for our protection. Some find food labels daunting, even confusing, in terms of understanding the nutritional content and ingredients. They are guides to help us tailor our diets to our own specific needs and they also have the potential to save our lives. For someone with an allergy, or someone looking to limit sugar or salt intake, reading the label could be the difference between health and illness.

Until the 1960s, there was very little information on food labels to identity the nutritional content. At that time, most labels only described the number of calories and sodium in a product. Meals were made at home so there was little demand for information. However, with the introduction and popularity of processed foods, consumers requested more information. In response, the recommendation of the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health was that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should consider developing a system for identifying the nutritional qualities of food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors most of our meat, poultry, and eggs while the FDA monitors all the other food products. There are a lot of similar and differing regulations between both government agencies, making it somewhat confusing as to who is regulating what food product at any given time. But the FDA is responsible for regulating 80% of our food supply, including dairy, seafood, produce, packaged foods, bottled water, and eggs.

According to the FDA, there are two main reasons for manufacturers to have proper food labeling. One, is to accurately describe their product to consumers and two, is to avoid facing any penalties or sanctions for not meeting the FDA standards which could lead to product removal from shelves. Also, the FDA is “responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically, as well as foods from foreign countries. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) of 1967 are the federal laws governing food products under FDA’s jurisdiction.” The FD&C Act oversees the safety of food, medicine, medical devices, and cosmetics. The FPLA directs the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA to issue regulations requiring that all “consumer commodities” be labeled to disclose net contents, identity of commodity, and name and place of business of the product’s manufacturer, packer, or distributor.

Food labels usually contain five elements.

  1. The statement of identity tells the consumer what the product is.
  2. The product’s net weight is usually listed on the bottom of the product or the label.
  3. The manufacturer’s address is also there for consumers to contact for inquiries.
  4. The nutrition label, which is divided into three parts: serving size, nutrients, and vitamins and minerals. The serving size can tell the consumer just how many calories or how much cholesterol is in that specific serving size. Nutrition facts label should include five core nutrients such as the calories, total fat, sodium, total carbohydrates, and protein. The vitamin and mineral contents are usually placed under the nutrition facts. Some examples include the percentage of iron, calcium, vitamin C, and vitamin A.
  5. The ingredient list, which may include easily recognized items like salt, sugar, and whole grain rice or scientific names for common food ingredients that may not be so easy to recognize. The more processed the food, the more complex the ingredient list. For example, ascorbic acid, riboflavin, maltodextrin, and calcium carbonate are found on labels of popular food products. Ascorbic acid is another name for vitamin C. Riboflavin is vitamin B2. Maltodextrin is a white, starchy powder added into many foods to improve their flavor, thickness, or shelf life. Calcium carbonate, an ingredient in cereal products, is a dietary supplement and is sometimes used as an antacid. Don’t be deterred by those seemingly complicated ingredients, as a quick internet search can put your mind at ease. As of January 2006, a common list of food allergens must be listed: milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, fish, crustacean shellfish, and soybeans. This requirement coming into law was a major milestone in protecting those who are allergic to different types of foods.

Dietary supplements also have similar requirements for labelling by the FDA. The statement of identity describes whether the supplement is a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or a botanical, an amino acid, or a dietary substance. Other requirements are listing the net quantity of contents statement or the amount of the dietary supplement, the nutrition labeling, the ingredient list, and the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor.

The USDA regulates most labels we see on meat and poultry packaging. Their labels are also like the labels used by the FDA. The USDA also regulates the labelling of a product to describe if it is chemical free, free range or roaming, halal or zabiha halal, kosher, no hormones, no antibiotics, or organic. Most of the regulation of non-GMO foods are conducted by the USDA, but it usually applies to meat and poultry. On their website, the USDA advises manufacturers, “Overall, if you make a product and want to claim that it or its ingredients are organic, your final product probably needs to be certified. If you are not certified, you must not make any organic claim on the principal display panel or use the USDA organic seal anywhere on the package. You may only, on the information panel, identify the certified organic ingredients as organic and the percentage of organic ingredients.”

But what about food labels that tout they are vegan or vegetarian? Can you trust the label? Currently, there is no regulation by the FDA or USDA on the use of the label vegan or vegetarian. Food manufacturers may state on their product labels that a food is “vegetarian” to indicate that no meat is included, or “vegan” to indicate the absence of any animal product in the ingredients. Vegan labelling also means no honey or other products derived from insects. There are non-government groups, or independent certification companies that provide these certifications, but their policies vary widely in terms of ingredient verification, on-site inspections, and products permitted to be included. Because there is no standardization or regulation for certifying vegan and vegetarian products, care should be taken in determining the value of a symbol indicating the product to be vegan or vegetarian. As Americans are becoming more aware of our how our food is produced, manufacturers know that vegan and vegetarian labels are good marketing strategies.

Currently, there are 64 countries that have laws requiring manufacturers to disclose genetically engineered ingredients in their products. Three countries, Zambia, Serbia, and Benin have banned GMO foods and their cultivation. Many other countries, including the United States and Canada do not require manufactures to have GMO food labelling. If you see a non-meat or poultry product with a GMO label, know that the manufacturer has volunteered to offer that information. However, the non-GMO project, is an independent non-profit organization with a verification program. Look for the non-GMO project label and check out their website, for a list of non-GMO foods and retailers.

The FDA issue new rules on labeling that will come into effect on January 1, 2020. These modify the Nutrition Facts label to more prominently display the calories and the amount of added sugar per serving. More information is available on the FDA website.

Kelly Izdihar Crosby is an artist and editorial assistant living in Atlanta, GA.