An introduction to U.S. food labeling requirements

The “what, where and when” of a compliant food label

The importance of a compliant label

A label is for packaged food, what an I.D. is for a person; it gives those who look at it immediate and precise information about the subject in front of them. Therefore, the information provided to the consumer using a food label should be accurate, legible, clear, and not misleading. 

For this reason, a food business operator who wishes to market its product in a given Country should be able to provide the consumer with all the information required by the existing laws of that Country. On the other hand, the consumer should be able to read this information efficiently. 

Following is a short introduction (hopefully useful for both) on what information should be on a compliant food label for the U.S. market.

For any reference, please consult the Code of Federal Regulations, title 21 Part 101 (Food labeling)

List of mandatory information

Following is a short list of the mandatory particulars which must appear on a generic food label (more on each topic later on):

  • Name of the food
  • Ingredient list (and allergens statement)
  • Net weight
  • Nutrition facts table
  • Name, place of business of manufacturer, packer, or distributor
  • Country of origin

Panels and positioning 

First, correctly positioning the above information is key to a compliant label. A consumer can identify two main panels on a food label according to the current regulatory framework:

  • The Principal Display Panel (PDP)
  • The Information Panel

PDP is the surface of the label that the consumers are more likely to see at the moment of purchase (typically the “front” of the package”). The information panel is the label’s surface, which is immediate to the right of the PDP.

There are two ways of positioning the mandatory information:

  • All particulars will appear on the Principal Display Panel or,
  • Name of the food and net weight on the Principal Display Panel and all other details on the Information Panel

Regardless of the choice of one of the above, there are a couple of other requisites that manufacturers must follow:

  • Net weight must appear on the bottom 30% of the Principal Display Panel, parallel with the base of the container. It shall differ from other label info (wordings, pictures, etc.) to the left and right. The food industry has to keep a distance between them. This distance has to be equal to or more extensive than the width of the letter “N” (“Net”). The spaces above and below have to be similar to or more extensive than the height of the letter “N.” The characters must be at most three times as high as they are wide, and they must contrast sufficiently with the background to be easily read.
  • The Nutrition Facts table, Ingredient list, and Name and place of business of the operator must be written contiguously, with no intervening material* among them.

*Information not required by F.D.A. is considered intervening material. Examples of intervening material are the B.A.R. code, the best before date, any image or picture, any “flavor” text, etc. It is not permitted to place any of them between the required labeling on the information panel.

 Type size

All mandatory particulars, with the exceptions listed below, must be written using a type size of at least 1/16 inch (about 1,6 mm) using the lower-case letter “o” as a reference. 

The letters must be at most three times as high as they are wide, and they must contrast sufficiently with the background to be easily read. 

  • Exception n°1: Product Name must be written in type size at least half the size of the most extensive wording on the label (a trademark, a fancy text, or anything else). Therefore, if the brand is 1 inch large, then the Product name shall be ½ inch minimum (in this way, superseding the rule in the previous paragraph).
  • Exception n°2: Manufacturers have to write the net weight in a type size that varies based on the dimensions of the Principal Display Panel, according to the following table

Minimum Type Size 

Area of Principal Display Panel 

1/16 in. (1.6 mm) 

5 sq. in. (32 sq. cm.) or less 

1/8 in. (3.2 mm) 

More than 5 sq. in. (32 sq. cm.) but not more than 25 sq. in. (161 sq. cm.) 

3/16 in. (4.8 mm) 

More than 25 sq. in. (161 sq. cm.) but not more than 100 sq. in. (645 sq. cm.) 

1/4 in. (6.4 mm) 

More than 100 sq. in. (645 sq. cm.) but not more than 400 sq. in. (2580 sq. cm.) 

1/2 in. (12.7 mm) 

Over 400 sq. in. (2580 sq. cm.) 

  • Exception n°3: the Nutrition Facts table follows precise requirements for type size, which can vary significantly based on the table format.

Focus on the mandatory particulars – Product name

Many products follow a Standard of Identity, which determines the exact Name a product must bear to comply with the actual Regulations. 

For example, a paragraph of the Code of Federal Regulations defines “bread” or “milk.” To be labeled with such names, food products must follow to the minute what the Code of Federal Regulations states about the manufacturing and composition of those products. Moreover, suppose a food has the exact features outlined in one Standard of identity. In that case, the manufacturer has to name the food accordingly (i.e., it is impossible to call other than “bread” a product with the exact features provided by the Regulation).

On the other hand, a product that does not fall into one of the Standards of identity can be named “freely,” following some simple rules:

  • The food industry shall use a descriptive name, which enables the consumer to understand the exact nature of the product he is purchasing (“breadsticks,” “chili flavored potato chips,” and “chocolate cookies” are all examples of a generic descriptive name that in line with the Regulation)
  • The food industry can use a “fancy” name, provided the exact nature of the product is understandable at the moment of sale (with no possible misunderstanding). 

When a product is available for selling in more than one format (whole, sliced, diced, etc.), then this must clearly be stated in the product name.

Focus on the mandatory particulars – Ingredient list and allergens

The word “Ingredients” must follow the ingredients, which must be in descending order of predominance by weight, and follow the naming rules outlined in the previous paragraph. 

When the food industry uses a compound ingredient, it has to list its components in one of the two following ways:

  • By declaring the established common or usual name of the ingredient followed by a parenthetical listing of all ingredients contained therein in descending order of predominance
  • By incorporating into the statement of ingredients in descending order of predominance in the finished food, the common or usual name of every component of the ingredient without listing the ingredient itself.

Suppose there is a % declaration (which, by the way, is not mandatory). In that case, it shall be shown in parentheses following the ingredient’s Name and expressed in terms of percent by weight.

The food industry has to declare allergens (which in the U.S.A. are the following: wheat, milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, soybean – sesame seeds to be added to the list shortly) in one of the following ways:

  • By declaring their common names inside the ingredient list, with no particular highlighting needed (no bold, upper-case or italic)
  • By including them in a “Contains:” statement, positioned right after the ingredient list

Unlike E.U., the legislation recognizes as an allergen only wheat (and not other gluten-containing cereals). Allergens are also tree nuts, including three more nuts (pine nuts, coconut, and chestnuts). Like E.U., food manufacturers have to list each tree nut separately (i.e., it’s impossible to use a generic “tree nuts” statement).

Focus on the mandatory particulars – Net weight

Food labels printed must show the net contents in both metric (grams, kilograms, milliliters, liters) and U.S. Customary System (ounces, pounds, fluid ounces) terms. The metric statement may be before or after the U. S. Customary statement or above or below. 

Each of the following examples is correct:

  • Net wt 1 lb 8 oz (680g) 
  • Net wt 1 lb 8 oz 680 g 
  • 500 ml (1 pt 0.9 fl oz) 
  • Net contents 1 gal (3.79 L) 

Focus on the mandatory particulars – Nutrition facts table

In The U.S., the Nutrition facts table represents a milestone of food labeling, the essential item to be displayed on a package.

Following is a format of a “standard” Nutrition facts table:

Some notable items to be considered are as follows:

  • All values are given “per portion” (we determine the portion according to well-established rules which allow similar foods to have comparable pieces)
  • The value Carbohydrate always contains Dietary Fiber.
  • Consumers can only read about the added sugars on the manufacturer’s recipe, as it includes only sugars added to the product, not those naturally present.

Regulatory Reference

  • Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Part 101
  • FDA Food Labeling Guide



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