How To Read Food Labels


The very best thing for parents to do when beginning dietary intervention, is to learn how to read ingredient labels.  While TACA has a list of foods on our website to help you shop, it’s by no means exhaustive.  Manufacturers change their ingredients from time to time so it’s best to learn to read labels yourself.

Please note: The following applies to foods made in the USA. Foods made outside the USA, are not subject to the same labeling laws, and therefore you should be much more careful or not use them.

FDA labeling law for allergen information

Excerpted from the FDA Food Allergen Labeling

What is the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004?

NEW for 2014 - There are new federal guidelines for "Gluten-Free" food labeling:
"Effective August 2, 2014, companies opting to label their products as gluten-free, will be required to comply with the less 20ppm standard."

Answer: The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) (or Title II of Public Law 108-282) is a law that requires food manufacturers to list the ingredients in their products and disclose allergens.  The law went into effect in 2006.

What is a "major food allergen?"

Answer: Under FALCPA, a "major food allergen" is an ingredient that is one of the following eight foods or food groups or an ingredient that contains protein derived from one of them:

  1. milk
  2. egg
  3. fish
  4. Crustacean shellfish
  5. tree nuts
  6. wheat
  7. peanuts
  8. soybeans

Although more than 160 foods have been identified to cause food allergies in sensitive individuals, the "major food allergens" account for 90 percent of all food allergies. Allergens other than the major food allergens are not subject to FALCPA labeling requirements.

How Major Food Allergens Are Listed?

The law requires that food labels identify the food source of all major food allergens. Unless the food source of a major food allergen is part of the ingredient's common or usual name (or is already identified in the ingredient list), it must be included in one of two ways.

The name of the food source of a major food allergen must appear:

  1. In parentheses following the name of the ingredient.
    Examples: "lecithin (soy)," "flour (wheat)," and "whey (milk)"

– OR –

  1. Immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a "contains" statement.
    Example: "Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy."

Are flavors, colors, and incidental additives subject to FALCPA labeling requirements?

Answer: Yes. FALCPA labeling requirements apply to foods that are made with any ingredient, including flavorings, colorings, or incidental additives (e.g., processing aids), that is or contains a major food allergen.

Do retail and foodservice establishments have to comply with FALCPA's labeling requirements?

Answer: FALCPA's labeling requirements extend to foods packaged by a retail or foodservice establishment that are offered for human consumption. However, FALCPA's labeling requirements do not apply to foods provided by a retail food establishment that are placed in a wrapper or container in response to a consumer's order - such as the paper or box used to convey a sandwich that has been prepared in response to a consumer's order. The law for restaurants is at

Section 201(qq) of the FD&C Act includes "wheat" in the definition of major food allergen. What is considered "wheat" for purposes of Section 201(qq)?

Answer: The term "wheat" in Section 201(qq) means any species in the genus Triticum. Thus, for the purposes of Section 201(qq), wheat would include grains such as common wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), durum wheat (Triticum durum Desf.), club wheat (Triticum compactum Host.), spelt (Triticum spelta L.), semolina (Triticum durum Desf.), Einkorn (Triticum monococcum L. subsp. Monococcum), emmer (Triticum turgidumL. subsp. dicoccon (Schrank) Thell.), kamut (Triticum polonicum L.), and triticale (x Triticosecale ssp. Wittm.).

May singular terms be substituted for the plural terms "peanuts," "soybeans" and the different types of "tree nuts" (e.g., almonds, pecans, or walnuts), and may synonyms for the term "soybean" be used to satisfy the labeling requirements of FALCPA?

Answer: Yes. FDA believes that the singular terms "peanut," and "soybean," as well as the singular terms (e.g., almond, pecan, or walnut) for the different types of tree nuts are acceptable substitutes for the plural terms for these major food allergens for the purpose of satisfying the FALCPA labeling requirements. Also, the terms "soybean," "soy," and "soya" are reasonable synonyms for the common or usual name "soybeans," and any one of these terms may be used to identify the food source of the major food allergen "soybeans." However, packaged foods that are made using "soybeans" as an ingredient or as a component of a multi-component ingredient (e.g., soy sauce or tofu) should continue to use the word "soybeans" as the appropriate common or usual name for this ingredient to identify properly the ingredient (e.g., "soy sauce (water, wheat, soybeans, salt)").

Protein Hydrolysates

Under FALCPA, consumers will get more information about protein hydrolysates in their food, too. Hydrolyzed proteins (proteins broken down by acid or enzymes into amino acids) are added to foods to serve various functions. They can be used as leavening agents, stabilizers (to impart body or improve consistency, for example), thickeners, flavorings, flavor enhancers, and as a nutrient (protein source), to name a few uses.

Since the law does not require flavors to be identified by their common or usual names, some in industry have made a practice of declaring protein hydrolysates as "flavorings" or "natural flavors" even when they are used as flavor enhancers — a use not exempt from declaration. After reviewing the data, FDA concluded that protein hydrolysates added to foods as flavorings always function as flavor enhancers as well and, as such, must be declared by their common or usual name.

The source of protein in hydrolysates used for flavor-related purposes also must be identified. Previously the general terms "hydrolyzed vegetable protein," "hydrolyzed animal protein," or simply "hydrolyzed protein" were permitted, but the new regulation requires identification of the specific protein source, such as "hydrolyzed corn protein" or "hydrolyzed casein." There are two reasons for this.

First, the law requires that the common or usual name of a food should adequately describe its basic nature or characterizing properties or ingredients. FDA reasoned that the more general terms "animal" and "vegetable" don't meet this requirement because protein hydrolysates from different sources best serve different functions. Manufacturers select protein hydrolysates from specific sources depending on how they will be used in a product. Hydrolyzed casein is generally used in canned tuna, for example, whereas hydrolyzed wheat protein is used in meat flavors.

Food Packaging Technicalities

Manufacturers claim their product to be low-calorie, heart smart or low-cholesterol but what does that REALLY mean?  Here are some consumer guides to tell you.

Medline Plus - Food Labels

For more labeling information, visit the FDA website.