Food Labeling

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All foods sold in packages are required to have a food label. Food labeling regulations have been established by the FDA and the Commonwealth of Virginia abides by these labeling regulations. Complete food labeling information can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 Part 101 – Food Labeling. Additional guidance can be found on the FDA website entitled “Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide."

In general, all food labels must contain the following information:

  •  Product name
  • Net weight
  • Ingredient statement
  • Name and address of the food business
  • Nutrition facts information
  • Allergen declaration


Product name. The common name of the product must be on the principle display panel (front) of the package. It must be an accurate description of the product, and it must follow the standards of identity guidelines, if applicable. The product name must be in bold, and must be the LARGEST TYPE on the panel.

Net weight of the contents. The net weight must also be on the front panel of the package, and must be declared in both US and metric units (Example: ounces and grams). For further information, call the Virginia Department of Weights and Measures (804) 786-2476.

Ingredient statement. The label must contain a list of all ingredients in the food product, in descending order of prominence based on weight. The most abundant ingredient is listed first, and each ingredient that follows should be of a lesser weight quantity than the ingredient before, with the least prominent ingredient listed last. If an ingredient is listed that has sub-ingredients, the list of sub-ingredients must be listed in parenthesis in the ingredient list. For example, if your product contains ketchup, the ingredient list would contain “ketchup (tomato concentrate, vinegar, corn syrup, sugar, salt, spices)”. Ingredients must be listed by their common or usual name, for example: “sugar” rather than “sucrose”.

Name and address of the food business. The name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor must be listed. A PO box is not an acceptable address. An email address can not replace a physical address.

Nutrition facts labeling information. A nutrition facts label is required for all food products, but there are some exemptions for small food businesses (see below). All food products that make a nutrition or health claim (ie. “high in vitamin C” or “low-fat”) must include a nutrition facts panel on their label.

Allergen declaration. The name of the food source for each major food allergen contained in the food product must be clearly labeled. Allergens that are mandatory to list are: Milk, Eggs, Fish, Crustacean Shellfish, Treenuts, Peanuts, Soy, and Wheat. In addtion, treenuts, fish, and shellfish require specific declarations. For treenuts, the specific type of nut must be declared (e.g., almonds, pecans, or walnuts). For fish and Crustacean shellfish, the species must be declared (Fish example: bass, flounder, cod; Crustacean shellfish example: crab, lobster, shrimp).

Nutrition facts labeling EXEMPTIONS for small food businesses.

Small businesses may be eligible for exemption from nutrition facts labeling. There are two categories in which the exemption may fall; a) A notice is NOT required to be filed with the FDA for the exemption to apply and b) A notice is required to be filed with the FDA for the exemption to apply.

In order to qualify for the exemption and NOT have to file with the FDA, the company must be a retailer that has annual gross sales of not more than $500,000, or with annual gross sales of food or dietary supplements to consumers of not more than $50,000 or have less than 10 employees and sells less than 10,000  units annually.

In order to qualify for the exemption and be REQUIRED to file with the FDA, the company must employ fewer than an average of 100 full-time equivalent employees and produce fewer than 100,000 units of product that is sold in the United States over a 12-month period. All importers must file.

Companies that must file their exemption claims must do so annually. Companies that are not required to file the exemption with FDA are still encouraged to file their exemption voluntarily in order to establish a record that they are claiming an exemption.

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A label on a food package is divided into different portions, based on the design of the package.

The portion of the package that is most visible to the consumer is known as the Primary Display Panel (PDP). The PDP is usually the front of the package. By law, the PDP must show the name of the product and the net contents of the container. The size of the PDP will also dictate the allowable character size and type style allowed on the package.

If the package is designed in a way that there might be two or more sections that are suitable to be the PDP, one of the surfaces will be known as the Alternative Principle Display Panel (think about a cereal box).

The information panel is the portion of the label directly to the right of the PDP as you face the product. The information panel should contain the list of ingredients, the name and address of the food manufacturer, and the nutrition facts label. If allergens are included in the food product, they should be listed here as well.

Primary Display Panel
Example of primary display panel (PDP) and information panel of a package.

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If you plan on using any words on your labels like “low-fat”, “sugar-free”, “a good source of”, etc., you should know that there are federal regulations that limit the kinds of claims you make and the context in which they may be used. Always check with an authoritative source on labeling to verify that the claims you are making are appropriate, correct, and allowed by regulations.

Should you choose to make a nutrient or health claim on your label, you will be required to also provide a nutrition facts label. Businesses that have claimed exemption from the nutrition facts labeling will lose their exemption status if they make a label claim.

Nutrient Claims


A nutrient claim is a claim on a food label that either implies or directly characterizes the level of a nutrient in the food (e.g., “low fat”, “high in fiber”, “calorie free”).  In order to make a specific nutrient claim, your food item must meet specific criteria that are allowable by the FDA. Nutrient content claims are based on the amount of food people usually eat or drink, which is known as a reference amount. A serving size and a reference amount are typically the same. However, sometimes they are different. Most nutrient claims apply to the amount of nutrients available in the Daily Value. Daily Value is the percent of a nutrient provided by a serving of food based on a 2000-calorie a day diet.

Allowable Nutrient Claims were established by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Table 1 lists synonyms that are allowed to be used in nutrient claims. For a complete list of allowable claims, and to understand nutrient claims in more detail, please see the FDA Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide.


Table 1. Synonyms allowable in label claims.
Nutrient claim Allowable synonym
Free “zero”, “no”, “without”, “trivial source of”, “negligible source of”, “dietarily insignificant source of”
Low “little”, (“few” for calories), “contains a small amount of”, “low source of”
Reduced/less “lower”


See Table 2 for an incomplete list of allowable nutrition claims according to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.

Health Claims

A health claim is any claim on the label that expressly or by implication characterizes the relationship of any substance in the food to a disease or health-related condition. Health claims are regulated very strenuously and care must be taken so that the food is not subject to be related as a drug rather than a food. All health claims made must be authorized by the FDA to verify the relationship between the food product and the health condition. Products that contain a health claim must include a defined amount of the nutrient that is directly linked to the health-related condition. The claim must also be clear that other factors (exercise, heredity) may influence the development of disease.

For example, “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts (such as almonds) as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. [See nutrition information for fat content].”

For a list of allowable health claims, please see FDA Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide, Appendix C: Health Claims; and Appendix D: Qualified Health Claims.


Table 2. Definition of Nutrition Label Claims
Nutrient Claim Nutrient Content Requirements Per Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC)
Calorie free Contains less than 5 calories
Low calorie 40 calories or less
Reduced/less calories At least 25% fewer calories per serving than an appropriate reference food
Light or Lite Has at least 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat. If 50% or more of the calories are from fat, fat must be reduced by at least 50% per serving
Fat free Less than 0.5 g
Low fat 3g or less (if the serving size is small, 3g of fat per 50 g of food)
Reduced/less fat At least 25% less pat per serving than an appropriate reference food
No saturated fat Less than 0.5 g saturated fat and less than 0.5 g trans fatty acids
Low saturated fat 1 g or less and 15% or less calories from saturated fat
Reduced/less saturated fat At least 25% less saturated fat per serving than an appropriate reference food
Cholesterol free Less than 2 mg
Low cholesterol 20 mg or less (and per 50 mg or food if serving is small)
Reduced/less cholesterol At least 25% less cholesterol per serving than an appropriate reference food
Sodium free Less than 5 mg
Low sodium 140 mg or less (and per 50 g if serving is small)
Reduced/less sodium At least 25% less sodium per serving than an appropriate reference food
Sugar free Less than 0.5 g sugars
Low sugar May not be used, not defined
Reduced/less sugar At least 25% less sugars per serving than an appropriate reference food
High, Rich in, or Excellent Source of Contains 20% or more than the DV
Good Source, Contains, or Provides 10-19% of the DV
More, Fortified, Enriched, Added, Extra or Plus 10% more of the DV. May only be used for vitamins, minerals, protein, dietary fiber, and potassium.
Lean Contains less than 10 g total fat, 4.5 g or less saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g
Extra lean Contains less than 5 g total fat, less than 2 g saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g

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You may wish to include a UPC bar code as part of your label. UPC labeling is not a regulatory requirement. However, if you wish to sell your products through a retail outlet such as a grocery store, they may require your product to have a UPC code.

UPC labeling looks like a series of black and white, vertical lines with various spacing in-between each line. A series of numbers is also associated with the bar code. The bar code is designed so that it may be scanned (at a grocery store, for example) and the product code is identified. Each product has its own, unique bar code. By scanning a bar code, a computer can display the information about the item scanned such as the manufacturer, the product name, the product size, and the product price.

You will need a different barcode for each product type you have, as well as for each container size. For example:  if you are selling salted almonds and unsalted almonds, and packaging each in 6 oz., 12 oz., and 24 oz. containers, you would need to purchase 6 barcodes (6 oz. salted almonds, 12 oz. salted almonds, 24 oz. salted almonds, 6 oz. unsalted almonds, 12 oz. unsalted almonds, 24 oz. unsalted almonds).

If you wish to obtain UPC codes for your products, you must purchase them. You must contact the organization GS1 US (formally known as the Uniform Code Council, Inc.). You will need to sign up for membership with the organization, and then fill out an application to get a UPC for your product. Information on obtaining a barcode can be found on GS1’s website, found here:

Close-up of a UPC bar code
Close-up of a UPC bar code