How To Read Food Labels

Posted on 08 Oct 2009 14:58

The Nutrition Facts Panel1

The information in the main or top section, can vary with each food product but contains a number of mandatory listings. Every food label MUST provide this information in this standard format. They are:

The bottom part of the nutrition facts panel contains a footnote with Daily Values (DVs) for 2,000 and 2,500 calorie diets. This footnote provides recommended dietary information for important nutrients, including fats, sodium and fiber. The footnote is found only on larger packages and does not change from product to product. See companion video The Nutrition Facts Panel

nutrition facts panel from food label

Serving Size

It's amazing how often people miss this part! They skip right to the calories and miss the serving size information and the servings per container therefore consuming many more calories than they intend. The amount per serving influences the calorie amount and all the nutrients listed on the panel.

Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams.

In the example given on this page of a macaroni and cheese product, it would be very easy to consume the entire package. But this would be TWO servings and therefore 500 calories.

Even though the serving sizes tend to be standardized, keep in mind that different foods have different standard servings. The macaroni and cheese serving may be one cup but a standard serving of ice cream, for example, is one half cup. A pint of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream doesn't seem like so much too eat, does it? It's just a pint. Well that pint contains TWO cups and therefore FOUR servings of ice cream. So the whole pint may contain 1200 to 1400 calories!

It is even easier to be deceived by small bags of chips and sodas which seem small and so easy to consume at once. But these are commonly meant to be two or more servings, doubling or even tripling the calories or sugars you thought you were consuming in your little bag of chips or can of soda. The serving size and servings per container is at the top of the panel for a reason.

Serving Size and Portion Distortion

When it comes to the portions in food containers and servings sizes, Americans have fallen into a trap much like the frog in the frying pan. You know the story; you put the frog in a hot frying pan and he will hop out immediately. Put him in a cold pan and slowly raise the temperature…he won't notice and you end up with frog legs for dinner.

The gradual increase in portion sizes in America, and to some extent in Europe as well, is much the same. According to studies in the United States and Denmark, portion sizes have clearly increased over the past decades. Most of us didn't need studies to tell us that but it is nice to have some science to back it up. No, you weren't just imagining that a large movie theater popcorn hasn't always been the size of a Buick.

Problem is, those studies show that it's not just bags of chips and bucket of popcorn. Or fast food restaurants and the "supersizing" of everything. Portion sizes have actually increased inside the home as well. It is more important than ever that everyone becomes familiar with food labeling and makes themselves aware of what a 'serving' is.

The gradual increase in portions have made this trend seem appropriate to us, natural, and even expected.

There are many socio-economic and psychological reasons for this that go beyond a lesson on food labels but it is clear that LARGER PORTIONS LEAD TO INCREASED FOOD INTAKE.[1] [2]

Protein and Carbohydrate Powders (E.G. Whey and Maltodextrin) and Serving Size

Strength and bodybuilding trainees should be especially vigilant when it comes to supplement powders such as protein or carbohydrates. These are essentially food powders but they are marketed as dietary supplements. Therefore there are no standard serving sizes.

Whey proteins, casein proteins and various carbohydrates that are sold as dietary supplements are also used as ingredients in foods. In fact, whey protein, one of the most popular sport, bodybuilding, and strength "supplements" has been used in food for a very long time.

When these items are used as ingredients in manufactured foods they are subject to the same labeling requirements as any food ingredient because they ARE food. When manufacturers put them in a jug or a bag and market them as "dietary supplements" they are no longer subject to the same labeling regulations as food. This paves the way for a host of shady labeling practices.

A "serving" of whey protein, according to labels, may be anywhere from a twenty two to thirty five gram scoop of powder. Since different concentrations of whey protein contain more or less protein, the serving sizes are manipulated to bring the protein gram count up to a level comparable to other powders on the market.

However, when it comes to whey we usually only care about the amount of protein we are getting (some very obsessive trainees may sweat a few grams of natural sugar or fat). This allows supplement vendors to dupe the uneducated consumer.

A typical protein yield from a scoop of whey is around 22 to 24 grams of protein. I've known trainees who had been paying exorbitant prices for their whey product for years because it claimed to supply huge amounts of protein per serving. As much as fifty grams! Now to the educated this would sound like "magic whey" since no whey exists in nature that can yield such an amount from the standard scoop sizes I described above. These trainees think they are getting a superior product that has TWICE the protein of most other products.

Enter the serving amount. Serving sizes of dietary supplements are not standardized, nor are they required to be as long as the maker can ensure that it's suggested serving size is "safe". The serving size is still right at the top of the panel, but trainees still miss it. These products list the serving size as TWO SCOOPS. Sometimes the scoop itself is larger than typical. It's the same type of whey mixture as most other leading brands, with mostly whey concentrate and a smattering of isolates. It contains around the same percentage of protein as most other wheys.2 They just recommend consuming twice as much of it and charge more for it.

So PAY ATTENTION to the serving size and and the number of servings per container:

nutrition facts panel serving size and servings per container

Calories and Calories from Fat

There is more to the calorie section of the food label than just "counting calories".

A calorie is a unit with which energy derived from food is measured. One calorie is actually a very very small amount of energy. One piece of fruit provides tens of thousands of them. So, a 100 calorie piece of fruit actually contains 100,000 calories. So, we express calories in thousand calorie units known as kilo-calories or kcalories. In common use, though, we simply call them "calories". So, when you see a more scholarly text referring to "kilo-calories" or "kcalories" know that they mean the same calories we are all familiar with.

Some confusion still exists over this unit of measurement. See Calorie Confusion for a thorough discussion of the history of the calorie and it's problems.

Notice, that above we said that a piece of fruit "provides" calories. Many people make the mistake of saying food "contains" calories. Calories are not a constituent of food. They are simply a measure of energy provided by food through metabolism. One kilo-calorie is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

We can think of the body's metabolism as similar to burning a piece of wood. When wood burns it releases energy in the form of heat, steam from water, and some carbon dioxide. The body's metabolism is a controlled version of this. Some of the energy the body releases from food is released as heat and some is used to fuel the muscles and to send impulses through the nerves.

The nutrients, known as "macro-nutrients" provide the energy from foods. Carbohydrate, fat, and protein. One gram of carbohydrate yields around 4 calories of energy. One gram of protein also provides around four. And one gram of fat provides around nine. These amounts are AVERAGE amounts, the actual energy yield varies slightly between different sources.

The calories, when combined with the nutrient information further down the panel, provide us with information on the "nutrient density" of the food we eat.

Since we want to pay particular attention to the calories derived from fats in the foods we eat, this is listed alongside the total calories on this panel.

nutrition facts panel calories per serving and calories from fat

So, in our macaroni and cheese example, almost HALF the calories come from fat. Definitely a lot of energy from fat, but notice that it actually contains less grams of fat than carbohydrate (starch). Fat simply provides more calories than carbohydrates do, nine instead of four.


Now come the individual nutrients. First on the label are those nutrients that Americans are generally considered to get plenty of or too much of. So..fats, cholesterol, and sodium.

Those with special health concerns may need to pay particular attention to these amounts in their diets.

We are supposed to pay particular attention to the saturated and trans fat content so labels have the amounts of these particular fats listed. In our example we have 3 grams each of saturated fat and trans fats. Leaving 6 grams of other fats which will generally be mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated fatty acids which come from fish, nuts, and liquid vegetable oils. These are considered healthy and we should seek to consume more of them while keeping total fat intake in mind.

Trans Fats (Trans Fatty Acids)

Trans fatty acids are particularly bad for us and have come under such fire that "trans-fat" free has become prominent on many labels. Keep in mind that a label is allowed to list a fat as zero grams and thus "trans fat free" if it contains LESS THAN .5 GRAMS (many have mistakenly reported this as less than one gram). Many have complained about the fact that a product does not need to be TRULY trans fat free to claim 0 grams of trans fat.

These requirements about trans fats are not unique to trans fats nor are they new. Manufacturer are required to report fat content to the NEAREST .5 GRAMS. If a product, therefore, contains .5 grams or less of fat or a particular fat that is required on the panel, zero grams can be listed. It would have been completely unreasonable for the FDA to completely revise labeling requirements in order to include trans fats on food labels.3

However, the fact remains that just because the food panel may say zero grams of trans fat there may still be some trans fat in the product. It is a very small amount and one would have to consume many such products for there to be a significant health risk. Problem is, most people DO consume a significant amount of these processed products. The problem is not food labeling but rather dietary habits and a lack of fresh, unprocessed foods in a diet.

To be sure about trans fat content, check the ingredient listing and look for hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oil. These are trans fats. Also be aware of fats called "mono and diglycerides of fatty acids." These common emulsifiers and stabilizers are manufactured using high heat processing similar to how partially hydrogenated oils are made and are very likely to contain trans fatty acids. However, manufacturers are NOT required to list trans fats from mono and diglycerides, only triglycerides.4

Total carbohydrates is all the carbohydrates, both simple sugars and complex carbs, in the food.

nutrition facts panel fats, cholesterol, trans fat amounts

Next on the label comes sugars, dietary fiber and some important vitamins and minerals. Although any number of vitamins or minerals may be listed the only one required to be listed, as stated above, are vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. The idea here is that we tend to be deficient in these nutrients, so food-makers are required to call attention to the amounts of these in their products to help us make choices to include more of them in the foods we eat.

Most Americans don't get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron in their diets. They are identified in blue as Get Enough of these Nutrients. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions. For example, getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis, a condition that results in brittle bones as one ages. Eating a diet high in dietary fiber promotes healthy bowel function. Additionally, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease (this remains a controversial topic).

nutrition facts panel carbohydrates, sugars, and protein amount

Sugars do not always mean ADDED sugar in a product. For instance, if you check the label on your container of milk, you will find that ALL the carbohydrates are, in fact, sugars. That is not because they add sugar to your milk! The sugars in this case are naturally occurring lactose.

Protein is generally not a problem for Americans and for those in most well developed countries. Athletes and those of us training for strength or bodybuilding, however, NEED MORE protein. So while the inactive person who is consuming a varied diet probably does not need to be concerned with getting enough protein, we do. Generally, a good rule of thumb is to get at least one to one and a half grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass to start. It is doubtful that extreme amounts of protein consumption as practiced by some…as much as 3 grams/kg will be of any more benefit. So let's not get obsessive about it.

Obviously there is more to how many people plan their macronutrient intake than what is being described here, but the purpose of this piece is to understand food labels.

REMEMBER: You can use the Nutrition Facts label not only to help limit those nutrients you want to cut back on but also to increase those nutrients you need to consume in greater amounts.

Comparing Nutrient Density with Sites like NutritionData

Another trap that people fall into when comparing the micro-nutrients in certain food has to do with those "important" nutrients that were mentioned above.

In terms of micro-nutrients, the FDA only requires labels to mention Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron as explained above. Remember, although these are particularly important nutrients they are not the only vitamins and minerals that foods may contain in abundance. The 'big three' are important to track but do not get a false idea about the nutritional parcity of one food compared to another based only on those nutrients. Many foods that are devoid of vitamin C, for instance, may be powerhouses when it comes to the b-vitamins and trace minerals.

When using sites like, remember that their quick glance labels only mention the big three. To get a more complete nutrient inventory use the USDA's Nutrient Data Laboratory Food Search.

And make sure to compare LIKE AMOUNTS. You don't want to compare one apple, for instance to "100 grams of peaches".

The Footnote at the Bottom of the Nutrition Facts Panel

Note the * used after the heading "%Daily Value" on the Nutrition Facts label. It refers to the Footnote in the lower part of the nutrition label, which tells you "%DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet". This statement must be on all food labels. But the remaining information in the full footnote may not be on the package if the size of the label is too small. When the full footnote does appear, it will always be the same. It doesn't change from product to product, because it shows recommended dietary advice for all Americans—it is not about a specific food product.

Bottom part of nutrition facts panel showing daily values

The amounts circled in red in the footnote—these are the Daily Values (DV) for each nutrient listed and are based on public health experts' advice. DVs are recommended levels of intakes. DVs in the footnote are based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet. Note how the DVs for some nutrients change, while others (for cholesterol and sodium) remain the same for both calorie amounts.


The Percent Daily Value (%DV)

The %DV section of the sample label aboveThe % Daily Values (%DVs) are based on the Daily Value recommendations for key nutrients but only for a 2,000 calorie daily diet—not 2,500 calories. You, like most people, may not know how many calories you consume in a day. But you can still use the %DV as a frame of reference whether or not you consume more or less than 2,000 calories.

The %DV helps you determine if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. Note: a few nutrients, like trans fat, do not have a %DV.

Do you need to know how to calculate percentages to use the %DV? No, the label (the %DV) does the math for you. It helps you interpret the numbers (grams and milligrams) by putting them all on the same scale for the day (0-100%DV). The %DV column doesn't add up vertically to 100%. Instead each nutrient is based on 100% of the daily requirements for that nutrient (for a 2,000 calorie diet). This way you can tell high from low and know which nutrients contribute a lot, or a little, to your daily recommended allowance (upper or lower).

5%DV or less is low and 20%DV or more is high.

This should tells you that 5%DV or less is low for all nutrients, those you want to limit (e.g., fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium), or for those that you want to consume in greater amounts (fiber, calcium, etc). 20% or more is high for all nutrients.

Example: Look at the amount of Total Fat in one serving listed on the sample nutrition label. Is 18% DV contributing a lot or a little to your fat limit of 100% DV?18%DV is not yet high, but what if you ate the whole package (two servings)? You would double that amount, eating 36% of your daily allowance for Total Fat. Coming from just one food, that amount leaves you with 64% of your fat allowance (100%-36%=64%) for all of the other foods you eat that day, snacks and drinks included.


Compare foods using the %DV

The %DV also makes it easy for you to make comparisons. You can compare one product or brand to a similar product. Just make sure the serving sizes are similar, especially the weight (e.g. gram, milligram, ounces) of each product. It's easy to see which foods are higher or lower in nutrients because the serving sizes are generally consistent for similar types of foods, except in a few cases like cereals.

Nutrient Content Claims: Use the %DV to help you quickly distinguish one claim from another, such as "reduced fat" vs. "light" or "nonfat." Just compare the %DVs for Total Fat in each food product to see which one is higher or lower in that nutrient—there is no need to memorize definitions. This works when comparing all nutrient content claims, e.g., less, light, low, free, more, high, etc.

Dietary Trade-Offs: You can use the %DV to help you make dietary trade-offs with other foods throughout the day. You don't have to give up a favorite food to eat a healthy diet. When a food you like is high in fat, balance it with foods that are low in fat at other times of the day. Also, pay attention to how much you eat so that the total amount of fat for the day stays below 100%DV.

Nutrients Without a %DV: Trans Fats, Protein, and Sugars

Note that Trans fat, Sugars and, Protein do not list a %DV on the Nutrition Facts label.

Trans Fat: Experts could not provide a reference value for trans fat nor any other information that FDA believes is sufficient to establish a Daily Value or %DV. Scientific reports link trans fat (and saturated fat) with raising blood LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, both of which increase your risk of coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in the US.

Protein: A %DV is required to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as "high in protein". Otherwise, unless the food is meant for use by infants and children under 4 years old, none is needed. Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children over 4 years of age.

Sugars: No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day. Keep in mind, the sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit and milk) as well as those added to a food or drink. Check the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars.

Nutrient Content Claims

Nutrient content claims are statements that food manufacturers can make to tell consumers how much of a specific nutrient is in a product. There is specific authorizing legislation that governs the content and language of such claims. These statements tend to describe the level of a certain nutrient or dietary substance as being "free", "high" or "low", such as low fat or high fiber. They can also compare the level of a nutrient to that in another food using words such as "more", "reduced" and "lite".

The language used on a food label affects what manufactures can or cannot do. Basically, any descriptive terms that characterize a nutrient, i.e. it infers that the level of this nutrient is high or low, must be qualified. For instance, a label can proclaim that it contains 200 mgs. of sodium freely but if it claims "ONLY 200 mgs." of sodium then it is characterizing the sodium as low and therefore must meet the criteria for this.

The FDA allows certain terms to be used on nutrient content claims. Some of these are more, less, fewer, good Source of, free, light, lean, extra lean, high, low and reduced.

These terms are all meant to be used and in very specific and limited ways and these claims must correspond with a certain amount thresholds. However most of these regulations apply only to those nutrients which have an established dietary value. These regulations are in place so that these terms are used consistently across all foods, thus ensuring that the consumer can make meaningful inferences from them.

For instance, a box of General Mills Cinnamon Toast Crunch proclaims "Good Source of Calcium and Vitamin D". This means that the cereal must contain 10 to 19% of the daily value for those nutrients per serving. Alternatively, the label could have used the terms "contains" or "provides".

Seems a bit odd, doesn't it? Why only up to 19 percent? Well, the claims, "good source of", "contains" and "provides" can only be made of foods that contain between 10 to 19% of the referenced nutrient.

Alternatively, a product that contains any amount over 10% of the referenced nutrient can use the terms "more," "fortified" "enriched" "added," "extra," or "plus" (only for vitamins, minerals, protein, dietary fiber, and potassium). Or, for products containing more than 19% can use "high", "rich in", or "excellent source of". So you can see that all these terms are used quite specifically.

Another example is in order for a product to claim it is Fat Free or Sugar Free, it needs to have 0.5g of sugar or fat, per serving or less.

See companion video Nutrient Content Claims

Free, Low, and Reduced/Less

These terms are used to describe calories, total fat, saturated fat, choleserol, sodium, or sugar. So for example, in the case of calories:

Free Low Reduced/Less Comments
Less than 5 cal per RACC and per labeled serving 40 cal or less per RACC (and per 50 g if RACC is small)Meals and main dishes: 120 cal or less per 100 g At least 25% fewer calories per RACC than an appropriate reference food (or for meals and main dishes, at least 25% fewer calories per 100g) "Light" or "Lite": if 50% or more of the calories are from fat, fat must be reduced by at least 50% per RACC. If less than 50% of calories are from fat, fat must be reduced at least 50% or calories reduced at least 1/3 per RACC "Light" or "Lite" meal or main dish product meets definition for "Low Calorie" or "Low Fat" meal and is labeled to indicate which definition is met For dietary supplements: Calorie claims can only be made when the reference product is greater than 40 calories per serving. Reference food may not be "Low Calorie"Uses term "Fewer" rather than "Less"

A reference food must be an appropriate similar food. I.E. potato chips must be compared to potato chips and not to some other similar salty snack.

For more information see Food Labeling Appendix A: Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims

There are many confusing cases in food labeling that make us scratch our heads. But usually there is a regulation governing it. For instance:

Fat Free Cooking Sprays

If you've ever read the label on a bottle of cooking spray you'll realize that they are of course almost 100 percent fat. However, since a "serving" of cooking spray, according to the manufacture is about .3 grams then a serving contains less than .5 grams of fat and therefore qualifies as "fat free".

Let's ignore the fact that .3 grams of cooking spray or a "1/3 second spray" is ridiculous and does not reflect the typical amount used or needed of a cooking spray. Regardless, it would be very confusing for a product that is almost one hundred vegetable oil (such as soybean oil or canola) to proclaim itself FAT FREE. So the FDA requires that a product such as this would have to declare itself to be 100% fat, which would be even more confusing and contradictory and no food maker would want to do that.

So, for cooking sprays it is considered fine to use "for fat free cooking" or "for fat free baking" which is exactly what a can of PAM® cooking spray declares. But the words FAT FREE cannot be highlighted, enlarged, or set off in any way.

Structure and Function Claims

Structure and function claims are defined by the FDA as claims that describe a nutrient or dietary ingredient intended to affect normal structure or function in humans, for example, "calcium builds strong bones." Such claims can also describe the way in which these nutrients or ingredients acts to maintain such structure or functions. Although a dietary ingredient or nutrient cannot be linked to a direct health claim, such as disease prevention or treatment, unless the specific statement has already been approved by the FDA structure or function claims can be related to a disease caused by a nutrient deficiency. The most well known example of this would be the relationship between vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and scurvy. But in such cases the claim must also tell how widespread the disease is in the US. This makes sense as it would be misleading to consumers to claim nutrient deficiency disease prevention if that deficiency and it's associated condition were actually rare in the US.5

Examples of common structure and function claims are "fiber maintains bowel regularity" "antioxidants maintain cell integrity", and "supports the immune system".

Structure/Function claims are highly controversial since many people feel they give food manufacturers (and dietary supplement makers) a "free ride". In particular claims concerning immune support, such as those popping up on yogurt labels, for example, have caused much outrage since to the general public "supporting the immune system" and "preventing disease" are synonymous. Unfortunately the FDA disagrees and states that such immunity claims are not specific enough to imply prevention of disease because the immune system has both structure/function and disease fighting roles.6

Still, many website articles have mischaracterized and misunderstood structure and function claims to make it seem as if they are a loophole by means of which food makers can say almost anything by using just the right language. Although in the case of dietary supplements this may be somewhat true, for structure and content claims concerning food is far from the case. These articles also state that the claims are "not regulated". Because certain types of claims are allowed without pre-approval does not mean they are completely unregulated. However, if the public is misinformed by reactionary websites of just what is allowable and what is not the result is the opposite of what these websites intend. Citizens can easily report bogus structure/function claims to the FDA but if they do not realize the claims are bogus because a misinformed website author misinformed them the result is that the food makers get the free ride the author was complaining about in the first place.

There are a number of specific revisions that apply to dietary supplements, most having to do with certain conditions not being viewed the the FDA as "diseases". The final rule allows a broad range of statements that allow dietary supplements to claim benefits or treatment for "natural" conditions such as normal conditions associated with aging as well as occasional conditions, such as constipation or heartburn, that are not themselves part of and underlying disease and not considered "abnormal". This rule regards labeling and literature associated with dietary supplements, not food labels. It is unclear what the intended consequence of the rule is on structure/function claims on food labels.5

Ingredients List

See companion video Nutrition Labels: Ingredients List

The ingredients in a food product are listed in descending order of weight. So, in other words, the ingredient that is used the MOST in a product is listed first and the ingredient that is used least is listed last. So, for instance, if a box of cereal lists 'corn' as the first ingredient, it contains more corn, by weight, than any other ingredient.

One exception to this is when a product contains 2% or less of certain ingredients. In that case all the ingredients that are 2% or less of the product can be grouped together at the end of the ingredients list. Sometimes manufacturers will state something like "contains 2% or less of the following:" but this is not strictly required as long as those ingredients are at the end of the list. Within that list, it is possible that the the first ingredient is used the most but there is no way to know without asking the manufacturer.

Knowing this about the ingredients list is helpful in a number of ways. In the case of natural or added sugars, for example, if you find a certain amount of sugars listed on the nutrition facts panel and you may wonder whether the product contains added sugars or if these sugars are only naturally occurring. The ingredient list will tell you if the product contains sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or other added sweeteners. If that sweetener is second or third on the list you also know that the product contains a LOT of added sweetener.

In regards to sugars and other ingredients, simple words are used instead of scientific words whenever possible. So sugar (table sugar)7 will be listed as sugar instead of "sucrose". Children are meant to be able to understand labels as well as adults.

You may not think that this is such a big deal but manufacturers can easily mislead consumers by using fancy terminology. A food maker might list, for example, "organic evaporated cane juice", as an ingredient. Using words like organic and juice impart a feeling of healthiness to the ingredient. Well, the common name for organic evaporated cane juice is SUGAR and any other terminology is an attempt to mislead the consumer. Such mislabeling is a direct violation of the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 101.4.6

Using the Ingredients List

The ingredients list keeps you from being mislead by the front label. You may buy a loaf of "wheat bread" that looks like wheat bread in that it has a brown color. But upon reading the ingredients you may find that it contains "enriched wheat flour", which, of course, pretty much any bread may contain. However, the brown color may have mislead you into thinking it was "whole wheat" or "whole grain wheat" but if it was, that would have to be listed on the ingredients. More likely caramel coloring is responsible for the pleasing wheatish color.

Or, perhaps you see a product that declares itself "non-dairy" such as a coffee creamer. It is possible that a food that is characterized on the label as "nondairy" may contain a caseinate ingredient which is a protein derived from milk. If so the caseinate ingredient must be identifed on the label and followed by a parenthetical statement identifying its source. For example, if the manufacturer uses the term "nondairy" on a creamer that contains sodium caseinate, it must include a parenthetical term such as "a milk derivative" after the listing of sodium caseinate in the ingredient list. If you are were trying to avoid milk ingredients because of a major allergy to milk proteins, this would be very important information to you and the word "non-dairy" could be potentially misleading without the ingredients list.

Another important way to use the ingredients list is to compare what is said on the front of the label with what is actually in the product. Bread for instance may say "wheat bread" on the label. It may even be a nice brown color. But just because it says wheat bread does not mean that it is made with WHOLE WHEAT. So the ingredients on a loaf of "wheat" bread may list "enriched wheat flour" or just "wheat flour". If whole grain flower was used then whole grain wheat flour would be listed.

Spices, Flavorings, Natural Flavor or Artificial Flavor

Specific spices and flavorings are not required to be named. Ingredient listings may simply say spices and natural flavors rather than say "cinnamon and natural vanilla flavor". But when they are named the common or usual names are used. So if a food product contains cinnamon then it will say cinnamon on the ingredients list and never cassia lignea.


There is no standard world-wide definition for spices. Different countries have different criteria for defining what is a spice. Generally, however, a spice can be considered the dried parts of plants such as roots, leaves and seeds which are used to give flavor to food, particularly a pungent flavor (and aroma). Seeds, buds, berries, roots, and leaves can all be used to make spices.


The word herb is actually a plant classification. It has little to do with a culinary classification. The word comes from the Latin herba meaning medicinal plant. Herbs can be used for many different purposes, including for cooking.

Difference Between Herbs and Spices

As stated, an herb is a classification of plant. A dried herb can be considered a spice when used for cooking. In fact any herb that is edible, or can be made edible, can be a spice. There is no real definition that distinguishes between an herb and a spice in a culinary sense. However most cooks tend to call those plant flavoring ingredients derived from the leaves of a plant "herbs" and those derived from berries, seeds, or bark as "spices". Furthermore some reserve the word "herb" only for fresh leaf ingredients and use the term "spice" for any dried plant part ingredient. Spice, however, is the only term that belongs strictly to a culinary classification.4

Natural Flavors

Natural flavorings, as defined by U.S. regulations, are essential oils, essences, extractives, distillates, protein hydrolysates or other ingredients that provide the flavor constituents of a spice, fruit, vegetable, or juice. Edible yeasts, herbs, roots, pretty much any type of food can be used to derive a natural flavoring. The purpose of a natural flavor is solely to impart flavor to the food. They have no role in nutrition.

Artificial Flavors

Artificial flavorings are not derived from natural sources. These can be composed of isolates from natural sources which are extracted by chemical processes and purely synthetic materials such as
aldehydes, ketones, acids, esters, phenols, phenol ethers, lactones, organic derivatives of sulfur, and aliphatic, aromatic, and terpene alcohols. Artificial grape flavor, for example, is composed of methyl anthranilate and ethyl 3-hydroxybutyrate. "Vanillin" is a well known artificial flavor for vanilla.3


One may wonder why the term "seasoning" requires a category of it's own. After all salt, pepper, and spices may all be considered seasoning in the food we prepare. However there are many other things added to food to enhance flavor that are not considered spices or flavorings as such. A particular problem then exists for "seasoning blends" or "flavoring packets". Pizza seasoning, barbecue seasoning, steak seasoning, etc. typically contain, by weight, many more non spice or flavoring ingredients such as dextrose, tomato powder, onion powder, garlic powder, citric acid, salt, cane sugar, hydrolyzed yeast, monosodium glutamate, and tricalcium phosphate. Therefore, while spices and flavoring in seasoning blends can can be collectively labelled "spices" or "flavoring" the non spice or flavoring ingredients must be listed by their common names on the ingredient list. This is an important consideration since it would be tempting for a manufacture of a "seasoning blend" simply call their product "spice" or "flavoring" but these blends fall under a broader food category.

For instance, the ingredient list of a "Taco Seasoning" mix may look like this:

Ingredients: Maltodextrin, salt, chilli pepper, onion powder, spice, monsodium glutamate, corn starch, corn flour, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, silicon dioxide (anticaking agent), natural flavor, BHT (preservative).

Artificial Colors

If an artificial color is 'certifed' it must be listed by it's certified name or abbreviated name, such as "FD & C Red No. 40" or just "Red 40". If a color is not certified then the list can just say "Artificial Color," "Artificial Color Added," "Color Added," or by its specific common or usual name which may be something like "caramel color".

In the case of spices that are also used for coloring, such as paprika, tumeric and saffron the label the same rules apply. If the specific spice is named, such as tumeric then the label may simply declare tumeric (it is not required to declare that it is used for coloring or seasoning or both) or if the specific spice is not named it can simply read "spice and coloring".

Chemical Preservatives

Chemical preservatives are listed by their common name, such as sodium benzoate or ascorbic acid but they also need to include a function. So you might see benzoic acid to inhibit mold" or "sodium nitrate to retard spoilage" or some similar language. The two most common types of preservatives are antimicrobials (against bacteria and molds) and anti-oxidants (to inhibit oxidation). Preservatives may also be added to protect flavor or coloring.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and Ingredients that may Contain MSG

Monosodium glutamate (MSG), is a sodium salt of the naturally occurring non-essential amino acid glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is widespread in nature and food. There are health concerns about the consumptioni of MSG and some people may be sensitive to it. However, investigations into it's potential health effects have been anything but consistent.

Many product claim to be "MSG free" or say "No MSG". However, there are several food very common food ingredients that may harbor monosodium glutamate. Many dishonest crank sources have taken to calling any free glutamates that are present as a result of processing MSG while claiming that "Proccessed Free Glutamic Acid" is MSG and all other free glutamates that occurs spontaneously in foods throughout nature is not. Consumers have taken up this definition as well but MSG is specifically a crystalline salt of glutamic acid. It is a specific ingredient and in not way should all free glutamates be considered MSG.

The following ingredients are hydrolyzed proteins, or protein hydrolysates, which are are acid-treated or enzymatically treated and may contain the salts of amino acids such as glutamate. If a food contains any of these ingredients they cannot be labelled "MSG Free", "No MSG", or "NO Added MSG":

  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
  • Hydrolyzed Protein
  • Hydrolyzed Plant Protein
  • Textured Protein or Textured Vegetable Protein
  • Plant Protein Extract
  • Hydrolyzed Oat Flour
  • Sodium Caseinate
  • Calcium Caseinate
  • Yeast Extract
  • Autolyzed Yeast
  • Hydrolyzed Oat Flour

Other common food ingredients that may contain MSG are malt extract, malt flavoring and boullion, and any ingredient listed as flavoring, natural flavoring or seasoning can possible contain it

Ingredients and Natural Claims

The term natural is worthy of a completely separate article. It doesn't have a very concrete definition right now and manufactures have great leeway in using it. The FDA does not want such claims to be misleading and requires them to be "truthful". However, since the public has certain expectations about the word and since there is no standard definition it is difficult to say what is misleading and what is truthful. However, foods claiming that they are natural or use natural ingredients are not allowed to use artificial colors, flavors, or synthetic substances.

So keep in mind that this does not mean they cannot use, for example, preservatives, since many common preservatives are quite natural substances (they are not made in a lab or "synthesized"). As many people have pointed out, cyanide is natural but you wouldn't want to eat it. Many groups are petitioning the FDA and USDA to adopt more rigorous standards for the term or at least to provide more clarification on how it can be used.

So, don't take the word natural very seriously. It's best to check the ingredients listing if you are concerned about certain ingredients and don't rely on the word natural on a food label to mean that it is magically free of anything you may object to.

For instance, to you, a juice may not be natural if it contains added sweeteners. But since the sweeteners added are quite natural there is nothing to stop a juice maker from using the word on their label even thought the product contains added sugar.

Even more likely the juice may be made from concentrate and contain added water. Is this natural to you? It may also contain vitamin c as a preservative and to maintain color in juices that don't naturally contain a lot of it (and to boost levels of the vitamin or "fortify" the product). Vitamin C is quite natural but many people don't thinking added ascorbic acid to a juice is "natural".

keep in mind that the word natural has nothing to do with the word organic which IS governed by very strict National Organic Standards.

Labeling for Food Allergens

Please see Ground Up Strength: Food Labelling for Food Allergens

Exemptions and Exceptions to Food Labeling Rules

There do exist certain situations in which special provisions or stipulations are made for food labeling situations. The following are some examples:

Small Packages

You may have noticed that some foods with very small packages contain abbreviated nutrition information or do not contain any nutrition information at all. FDA regulated packaged foods with less than 12 square inches of space available for nutrition information do not have to provide any. Instead, they must give an address or phone number where the consumer can request the information.

tabular or horizontal format food label

Packages with less than 40 square inches of useable space for nutrition information are allowed to present the information in a tabular format (horizontal), which omits footnotes with daily values and caloric conversion info, as well as abbreviating the names of the components.

Food Produced by Small Businesses

Food produced by small businesses with lass than $50,000 a year in food sales, fewer than 500 employees, and producing no more than a certain amount of product each year are exempt from food labelling. For instance, if you want to have a cookie business, you will not need to provide nutrition information until you become as big as Mrs. Fields, if there ever was a Mrs. Fields.

Foods Sold for Immediate Consumption

Foods sold in restaurants, cafeterias, vending machines, and airplanes are meant to be eaten immediately and therefore do not have to provide nutrition information.

Ready-to-Eat Foods Not for Immediate Consumption

Foods that prepared on-site but not necessarily meant to be consumed immediately, such as from bakeries, delis, and candy stores, do not have to provide nutrition information.

Bulk Foods Not for Direct Sale to Consumers

Foods that are shipped in bulk, as for a food manufacturer to use does not have to provide nutrition information as long as it is not mean to be sold to consumers in that form.

Donated Foods

Donated foods do not have to provide nutrition information.

Foods That do Not Contain Significant Nutrients

Foods that do not contain a significant amount of any nutrient, such as plain coffee, tea, flavor extracts, food colors, and some spices, do not have to provide any nutrition information.

Products Meant for Export

Products that are produced exclusively for the purpose of export to another country to do not have to meet labeling guidelines for US packaged foods.

Products That Contain No Significant Amounts of Some Nutrients

Certain products that do not contain significant amounts of some nutrients do not have to have a full label but can use an abbreviated label.7


1. Wansink, Brian. Mindless Eating Why We Eat More Than We Think. New York: Bantam, 2007.
2. Steenhuis, Ingrid and Vermeer, Willemijn. "Portion size: review and framework for interventions." International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2009. <>.
3. FISCHETTI, FRANK, Jr. "Volume 11: Flavors." Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. Hoboken (N. J.): Wiley-Interscience, 2007. 570-72. Print.
4. Hirasa, Kenji, and Mitsuo Takemasa. "Ch. 1: Spices and Herbs - Basic Concepts." Spice Science and Technology. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1998. 1-3. Print.
5. Federal Register 65 FR 999 January 6, 1999 — Regulations on Statements Made for Dietary Supplements Concerning the Effect of the Product on the Structure or Function of the Body; Final Rule." U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page. Web. 02 Sept. 2010. <>
6. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 -FOOD AND DRUGS CHAPTER IFOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SUBCHAPTER BFOOD FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION (CITE: 21CFR101.4)." U S Food and Drug Administration, Protecting and Promoting Your Health. Web. <>
7. Vieira, Ernest R., and Louis J. Ronsivalli. Elementary Food Science. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen, 1999.

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