Food Labels: What They Reveal and Conceal, Part 1

Food Labels

American consumers are paying increased attention to food labels in order to make healthier choices for themselves and their families, but, unfortunately, these labels are often misleading. Federal laws regulating food labels are complicated and can be difficult to understand. Moreover, the mainstream food industries frequently attempt to manipulate the wording on labels to hide any potentially negative information. For example, in a 2012 incident that raised public outcry, the dairy industry petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the standards of identity for milk and 17 other dairy products. If this petition is granted, the amended standards would still require that such sweeteners be itemized in the product’s ingredient list, but their presence would no longer need to be revealed on the front of the package. Sweetened, flavored milk, for example, would not have to be described as reduced calorie if it contained artificial sweeteners.

This could potentially mislead consumers and weaken the protection provided by front panel regulations. Some of the more significant federal guidelines regulating food labels, along with common manufacturers’ label claims, are discussed below.

Knowing what to look for and how to interpret information on food labels can help you to shop wisely.

Claims on the front of the package

The FDA stipulates that, for all packaged foods, the front panel of the label must declare the food’s common name. Some basic foods, such as milk, tomato paste, and chicken broth, have standards of identity that must be met in order for the common name to be used. Milk, for instance, is required to contain a percentage of milk fat that falls within a specified range. Otherwise, it must be given a descriptive name such as skim milk or nonfat milk. For non-standardized foods, names must describe the food in plain language, such as reduced-fat sour cream or sugar-free cookies. These names reveal important facts about the product. The phrase reduced-fat, for example, indicates that the product has been intentionally altered to lower the fat content, which may mean that synthetic additives and fat substitutes (such as olestra) were added.

Reduced-calorie and sugar-free products have been similarly altered, often by replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners. Names like these can make it easier for health-conscious consumers to avoid potentially harmful ingredients. Label claims that frozen meatballs “contain 100% real beef” or that chewy fruit cookies are “made with real fruit,” on the other hand, are not as straightforward as they appear. Such claims are allowed by the FDA as long as the stated item is actually one of the product’s ingredients. However, they are often misleading to consumers. In addition to beef, the meatballs may also contain binders and extenders, and the “real fruit” cookies may also contain sugar, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, flavoring, or added colors.

Claims that a product is “made with whole wheat” or has “two grams of whole grains” also should be interpreted with caution, as such items may include white flour among their ingredients. Whole wheat bread—like whole wheat rolls, buns, and macaroni— is a standardized product that must be made using only whole wheat flours. However, this principle does not apply to products for which the FDA does not prescribe standards of identity, such as breakfast cereals, bagels, muffins, or pizza crusts. These products may bear names based upon a “characterizing” ingredient, which could be whole wheat or oat bran, even if white flour is the first item on the ingredient list. Some companies have recently begun to place what might appear to be the ingredient list on the front of the package. For instance, a box of whole wheat crackers might say “made with organic whole wheat, olive oil, filtered water, and sea salt” on the front, but a look at the full ingredient list could reveal that the product also contains artificial preservatives. The official ingredient list is usually placed below the nutrition facts on an information panel. Anything else that appears to be a list of ingredients may be incomplete. Allergy information may also appear on the front panel, but this is not required by law.

The FDA mandates only that foods containing common allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy) must clearly indicate their presence either in the ingredient list or in the space after or adjacent to it. Although many manufacturers use the familiar warning “Contains X” after the ingredient list, those with allergies should always carefully check the list itself. Although the presence of non-wheat gluten does not have to be disclosed, a new rule passed by the FDA has standardized the use of the term gluten free. For a product to be considered gluten free, it cannot contain whole grains or flours from wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds (such as triticale). A small amount of gluten may be present due to cross-contamination from shared manufacturing equipment or from ingredients that have been refined to remove their gluten. However, gluten-free products are permitted to contain no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.

All products that claim to be gluten free must comply with this regulation by August 5, 2014. Next week we'll discuss the labeling of unpackaged foods, as well as organic and natural products. This article excerpt was selected from the Fall 2014 issue of the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing.

Read Part 2 of this article


  • Food and Drug Administration. Flavored milk; petition to amend the standard of identity for milk and 17 additional dairy products. Fed Regist. 2013; 78:11791.
  • Implied Nutrient Content Claims and Related Label Statements, 21 C.F.R. Sect. 101.65 (2013).
  • Whole Wheat Bread, Rolls, and Buns, 21 C.F.R. Sect. 136.180 (2013).
  • Shapiro R. A comprehensive review of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act regulations. In: Shapiro R, ed. Nutrition Labeling Handbook. New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, Inc.; 1995: 125-225. Summers JL.
  • Food Labeling Compliance Review. 4th ed. Ames, IA: Blackwell Publishing; 2007.
  • Food and Drug Administration. Food labeling; gluten-free labeling of foods. Fed Regist. 2013; 78:47154.

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