Food Labels

Woman reading food label

Food Labels - Know what you are buying

Someone once said, “Knowledge is power.” Food labels provide you with the knowledge you need, not only to spend your food budget wisely, but also to make choices both in type and portion of foods that will help you feel well and stay healthy.

Some label information is required by law

There was a time not too long ago, when food companies were not required to include any information about what was contained in their products when they packaged them for sale. Fortunately, that situation has changed. The government now requires that certain information be included on food packages, and as a result, there is a wealth of important information on the outside of the package that gives you a clue about what can be found inside of the package.

How nutritious is it?

One function of a food label is to define the nature and amount of nutrients found in the product. This includes values for Fats, Carbohydrates, Protein, Vitamins and Minerals. This information is useful for planning a nutritionally balanced diet for yourself and your family.

For specific information on Nutrition Labels, click this link.

What’s in it for me?

In addition to nutrient information, a food label must provide a list of the actual ingredients found in the product. This list is given in content order from most to least, so that the first listed ingredient is found in the greatest amount and the last listed ingredient is found in the least amount in the product. If vitamins and/or minerals are added to the product, the ingredient list will include those additions.

Here is a list of ingredients in one brand of ketchup:

Not surprisingly, “tomato concentrate” is the predominate ingredient in this product, with the least plentiful ingredient being “natural flavors.” This brings up an interesting problem with regard to ingredient lists on food labels. Although most people can understand what “Tomato Concentrate” is, “Natural flavors” is a vague term that really tells us almost nothing about what the ingredients actually are.

According to the USDA website, the term “Natural Flavors” may include ingredients such as ginger, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, celery powder, and garlic oil may be listed as one of the three categories mentioned above. They may be designated as "natural flavors" because they are substances used chiefly for flavor. They do not make a nutritional contribution, are not derived from an animal species, and there are no health concerns linked to them.

The USDA website also states that ingredients such as MSG, hydrolyzed protein and autolyzed yeast must be listed separately on the label and cannot be included under “Natural Flavors.”

Fun Fact: If you are wondering why the food companies don’t just list the ingredients instead of calling them “natural flavors,” one reason is to protect their “secret recipe.” The ketchup company doesn’t want their competitors to know exactly how they make their product taste the way it does.

It’s not rocket science

When you are looking at ingredient lists, keep in mind that the healthiest foods generally have ingredients that you recognize. If the list reads like a chemistry lab experiment, you may want to look for a product that contains more real food and fewer chemicals. If this is not always possible, at least be aware of the limitations of these “unnatural” foods with regard to your health, and use them consciously and sparingly.

--Caveat: Since we are all becoming label savvy, the food companies have found a way to make a product ingredient list look better than it really is. Instead of listing “sugar” as the first ingredient, even when it predominates, they will use several different forms of sugar, which can be listed separately and further down on the list. For instance here is a list of ingredients in a breakfast cereal product:

Corn, Oats, Malt Syrup, Dextrose, Cane Juice, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Cinnamon, Salt.

Four of the eight ingredients are, in essence, “sugar,” but because they are broken down by type of sugar, they are farther down on the list. To be truly accurate, you could say the ingredient list of this cereal is as follows:

Sugar, Corn, Oats, Cinnamon, Salt.

Sugar by any other name is still sugar.

Here is a list of added sugars in disguise that you might find on a food label:

Cane juice… Cane syrup… Corn Syrup… Corn Sweetener… Dextrose… Fructose… Glucose… High Fructose Corn Syrup… High Maltose Corn Syrup…Honey… Lactose… Levulose… Maltose… Malt Syrup… Molasses… Sucrose… Syrup…

--Caveat: Not all sugars and their disguises are created equal. A number of health experts believe, based on research, that High Fructose Corn Syrup, which has become ubiquitous in processed foods, can lead to obesity and contribute to the onset of diabetes. Maybe if we stop buying products with HFCS, food companies will stop adding it to their products.

Of course, anything that is called sugar, such as maple sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar, raw sugar or turbinado sugar are also forms of sugar. If you are trying to cut down on sugar or have medical issues that necessitate avoiding sugar, you need to be aware of these other names for sugar.


Conventional wisdom says that there is no difference between eating processed sugar like white table sugar or corn syrup, and eating the more natural forms like fruit sugar and honey. This may be true with regard to calories and the effect on your blood sugar, but naturally occurring sugars have qualities that are not found in processed sugars. They are whole foods that cannot be synthesized. We may not have discovered all the characteristics that make them special, but I am convinced that they are still a better choice than their processed step-cousins as long as you realize that they are still sugar and don't overdo.

Believe it or not

The large, colorful, eye-catching claims on food labels generally fall into two categories. There are claims about the amount of a nutrient in the product, and there are claims about how the product may affect your health and well-being. The FDA is very particular about the type and wording of such claims on food labels.

Nutrition claims

You may see the words “ a good source of” on many food labels. This is an example of a nutrition claim. For instance your orange juice may claim to be “a good source of Vitamin C.” In order for a company to make such a claim, the product must supply at least 10% of the Daily Value for the nutrient, in this case, Vitamin C. If you look on the “Percentage Daily Value” of the “Nutrition Facts” section of the food label, you should see a number that is at least 10%. Other nutrition claims include, “fat free,” “zero calories,” “light,” “lean,” “cholesterol free,” “sugar free” and “high fiber.” All of these nutrition claims are governed by the FDA.

To see a list of food label terms and what they mean, please click on this link. 

Health and Wellness claims

The other type of claim that will shout at you from food packaging labels, are claims that the food will help prevent disease, aging or generally improve your health in some way. For instance, one of the most common claims found on food labels is “may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Scientists consider that there is an inarguable link between sugar consumption and tooth decay, so this claim would appear on the A list. As a result, if a product is sugar-free, the food company may state on the label that the product helps in the fight against cavities.

These types of claims are more complicated because, although the FDA has rules concerning claims related to prevention of disease, they are less strict about claims about improving general health and wellness. They have established four standards for health claims based on the scientific communities' understanding of how unequivocal or “true” the connection is between the product and the health claim. Health claims that are not found on the so-called “A” list must include disclaimers, such as “there is scientific evidence to support this claim, but the evidence is not conclusive.”

For more information on the specifics of health claim labeling, please click on this link. 

If, however the claim is more general and does not mention a specific disorder or disease, the FDA is not as particular. For instance, instead of saying that the product helps prevent tooth decay, it might say that it helps “maintain healthy teeth.” No specific disease is mentioned, so it is not subject to the same rules.


In a perfect world, the government system of monitoring product health claims would be a totally reliable way to provide information about our food supply. Unfortunately, in our imperfect world, these standards can be affected by powerful food lobbies and by the source and amount of money funding research. This means that a claim that would be profitable to some special interest, may get more scientific attention, and even, dare I say, credibility, than a claim that is not enhanced in the same way. This is not to say that all government-approved health claims are questionable, just that we need to be aware of the potential flaw in the system.

Label savvy

I started this page by saying that “Knowledge is power.” There is a great deal of information to be found on the labels of food products that you buy. It is up to you to become conversant with the significance of this information. The good news is that the more you learn, the easier it will be for you to quickly scan labels to see if the food fits into your program for healthy eating. A bit of time spent now will pay huge benefits going forward.

I know you can do it!

Click here to go from Food Labels to Food Supply page.

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