Food Labeling


Responsibility for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe lies with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA oversees that foods are wholesome and properly labeled. Foods produced both domestically, and from foreign countries fall under the food labeling laws. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act are the federal laws governing food products under FDA's jurisdiction. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) amended the FD&C Act, requiring that most foods bear nutrition labeling and that food labels bearing nutrient content claims and certain health messages comply with certain requirements. More recently, the FDA updated rules for the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to acknowledge scientific information linking diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease.

Features of nutrition facts panel

Features of nutrition facts panel

Features of nutrition facts panel.


Food labeling is designed to protect the health and well-being of consumers. It allows them to:


In the United States, food labeling is regulated by very specific, complex, and ever-evolving legislation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the FDA are the federal agencies most involved with food-labeling issues and enforcement of food-labeling laws. The USDA is responsible for the labeling of meat, poultry, and egg products. The FDA regulates the labeling of most other foods, including seafood and bioengineered foods. The FDA also regulates dietary supplements and nutraceuticals. States also may regulate food labeling. For example, some states require sell-by or use-by information on food labels. When state and federal laws conflict, federal laws must be followed.

Different types of foods have different labeling requirements. For example, canned or frozen foods are required to have different information on their labels than fresh meat, poultry, and fish. Legislation covers things as specific as the definitions of certain words used on the label (e.g., low fat), the size of the print used on the label, and where certain information must be placed on the package. Milk and milk products are often subject to additional regulation by state dairy boards. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives regulates labeling of alcoholic beverages. The U.S. Customs Service requires certain information on processed foods that are imported into the United States.

Basic mandatory information

Both the FDA and the USDA require certain information to be listed in English on the label of packaged food available for sale. This information includes:

Supplemental required information

Certain foods are required to have additional information on the label:

Optional label information

Certain information on food labels is optional. Any optional information on the label must follow set guidelines and not be misleading. Foods that are labeled as “low fat,” “reduced calorie,” “sugar free,” or that make similar claims must meet the official FDA definition of these words. The FDA must approve any health claims that relate a specific ingredient to a specific disease, such as calcium helping to prevent osteoporosis.

Plant foods labeled ‘organic’ are made from crops raised without synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge fertilizer, and they have not been treated with most conventional pesticides and are not genetically engineered (bioengineered foods). Animal products that are labeled ‘organic’ come from livestock that has been fed 100% organic feed and raised without growth hormones or antibiotics in an environment where they have access to the outdoors. There continues to be debate about the exact requirements to label animal products as “cage free,” “free range,” and “grass fed.”

European regulations

Other countries have different requirements for what needs to be included on food labels. In Europe, the European Union (EU) mandates the information that needs to be present. Standard information includes the ingredients, ingredient amounts (in some cases), expiration dates, storage and cooking instructions, and allergen information. Countries in the EU are required to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and list the country of origin for meat and poultry products. Foods containing dyes (e.g., yellow, red) must display the warning “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children,” though many countries have banned the use of these dyes altogether. Strict labeling rules exist in Europe about claims for the nutrient content of a food and also whether it is possible to state whether a food or drink possesses specific any health properties (nutrition and health claims).

Reading a food label

The many descriptive words on a food label cannot be used unless they meet very specific legal requirements. Some of the common descriptions found on FDA-regulated foods include:

The USDA also has specific requirements for words used in labeling meat and poultry. Some of these include:

Two other lower grades of beef, standard and commercial, are sometimes sold as ungraded “store brand” meats. These cuts are wholesome and nutritious, but tend to be tougher and dryer than the higher grades. Utility, cutter, and canner beef, the lowest of the eight grades, are almost never seen in stores. These cuts of meat are used to make ground beef, hot dogs, and other processed meat products.

Understanding the nutrition facts panel

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 and subsequent revisions require certain nutritional information be clearly displayed on many foods, such as packaged foods and beverages. For nonpackaged foods, counter cards are sometimes used instead of packaging labels to provide voluntary nutrition information for many common fruits, vegetables, raw seafood, and wild game or exotic meats (e.g., ostrich). The nutrition facts panel is designed to encourage healthy eating. It gives consumers a way to compare the nutritional value of products and to see how specific products can help meet dietary needs. It also lists possible allergens.

Serving sizes are clearly indicated and written in both familiar units, such as cups or ounces, and metric units. Serving sizes are standardized for similar foods so that consumers can make easy comparisons. By law, serving size information must reflect amounts of foods and drinks that people actually consume. Hence, in 2016, serving sizes for many foods and drinks were increased, acknowledging that portion size has increased over time. For products containing multiple servings, manufacturers are required to list the nutritional information per serving and also per package unit, as well as the total number of servings contained in the package.

All information listed below the servings per container is given per single serving. People who eat more than one serving will take in more calories and nutrients than the amount listed on the label. Calories and calories from fat, the first nutrient listed, give the consumer a quick idea of how much energy the food provides and how healthful it is or is not.


The next section of the nutrient facts panel deals with specific nutrients. The information is given by weight in metric units (grams or mg) and as a percent daily value. The percent daily value shows how much of each nutrient the food contributes toward meeting the daily recommended amount of each specific nutrient. Percent daily values are based on the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of the nutrient for a person who is eating a 2,000 calorie diet. Percent daily values of 5% or less are considered low, and values of 20% or greater are considered high.

The nutrients listed next on the panel are ones that Americans generally eat enough or too much of and that they should try to limit. The first of these are total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. High consumption of saturated fat and trans fat is linked to the development of cardiovascular disease. People should try to consume as little of these fats as possible. Not enough information is available to calculate a percent daily value for trans fat. Manufacturers must list “added sugars” under the heading “total sugar” to help consumers understand how much sugar is in a product and to help support dietary guidelines aimed at reducing calorie intake from added sugars. Cholesterol and sodium complete the list of nutrients that should be consumed in limited amounts.

The nutrient panel also lists total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and protein. Most Americans should try to increase the amount of dietary fiber they consume. A percent daily value for protein is not required unless the food makes the claim that it is “high in protein.” In that case, the daily value must be 20% or greater.

The application of engineering principles and techniques to the field of biology, especially medicine.
Food allergen—
Compounds within foods (usually proteins) which are typically harmless but can cause an immediate allergic reaction in a susceptible person.
Genetically modified food—
Foods produced from organisms that have had changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering instead of traditional cross breeding.
A family of storage proteins in many grains, such as wheat, barley oats, and rye. They cannot be eaten by people with celiac disease.
Percent daily value—
An indication of how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.

Underneath the label, a statement describing percent daily values must be listed as “The % Daily Value tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”


Not all foods require a Nutrition Facts label, and food labels may be out-of-date, improperly labeled, or misleading. Further, any changes to food law are usually accompanied by lengthy transition periods, lessening the financial impact on companies whose products require new labels. The responsibility to remain current with the legal requirements for food labeling relies upon the food industry. All new regulations are published in the Federal Register (FR) prior to their effective date and compiled annually in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Side effects

One of the main side effects from packaged foods is food allergies. Food labels must list common food allergens under The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (Public Law 108–202), also known as FALCPA. FALCPA applies to prepackaged foods and to foods packaged by a retail or food service establishment that are offered for human consumption. As part of this, food labels must state whether a food product contains any of the following allergens:

Allergen labelling is designed to make it easier for people who have restricted diets due to food allergies to properly and accurately identify whether a food contains an allergen, thus reducing the risks for complications due to food allergies.


In addition to causing allergies, some ingredients can react with prescription and over-the-counter medications, so it is important to ask for clear direction from a healthcare provider about additives or ingredients to avoid.

See also Celiac disease ; Hormone-free foods .



Stewart, Kimberly Lord. Eating Between The Lines: The Supermarket Shopper's Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2007.

Taub-Dix, Bonnie. Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time. New York: Plume, 2014.


Viola, Gaia Claudia Viviana, Francesca Bianchi, Elia Croce, et al. “Are Food Labels Effective as a Means of Health Prevention?” Journal of Public Health Research 5, no. 3 (December 2016): 768.

WEBSITES (accessed May 17, 2018).

European Commission. “Food Information to Consumers.” . (accessed May 17, 2018).

Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Whats on a Food Label?” University of Nebraska—Lincoln. (accessed May 17, 2018).

U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Organic Regulations.” . (accessed May 17, 2018).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (accessed May 17, 2018).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Labeling and Nutrition.” (accessed May 17, 2018).


European Commission, Directorate General for Health and Consumers, Charlemagne Building, Rue de la Loi 170, 1040 Brussels, Belgium, 011 32 (2) 299-11-11, .

International Food Information Council Foundation, 1100 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 430, Washington, DC, 20036, (202) 296-6540,, .

U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20250, (202) 720-2791, .

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 10903 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, MD, 20993, (888) 463-6332, , .

Tish Davidson, AM
Revised by Anne P. Nugent, PhD RNutr

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.