Labels – From food to house hold products

In this series, we explore labels on our everyday products to understand the ingredients that we consume and use.

Labels on our food and household products can be confusing. In this series, we'll explore labels and how they help us make informed decisions. In this post, we will introduce labels and look at their purpose. 

What are ingredient labels?

All packaged foods, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and household products are required by law to contain an ingredient list for all of the core ingredients that make up the final product. This lets us know what we are purchasing and will eventually be using and/or consuming.

Product manufacturers are required by law to ensure that the labeling is clear and accurate. If a product contains adulterated or otherwise fraudulent ingredients, the federal government can issue a recall to keep consumers safe. 

Who implements and enforces labeling standards?

In the United State, there are three main entities responsible for implementing and enforcing labeling requirements: Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United State Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

U.S. federal government organizations aren’t the only entities that require labeling; some states such as California, have passed legislation that requires additional labeling on products sold within the state. Since most product production isn’t state-specific, labeling required by specific states can be found on products available nationally. 

Are there different labeling types?

There are different types of labels used for various purposes. People tend to be most familiar with “Nutrition Facts” labeling found on packaged foods or “Drug Facts” labeling found on over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Located near or within the “Nutrition Fact” and “Drug Facts” labels are the ingredients.

Ingredient lists are not exclusive to foods and medications, they're found in cosmetics and household products too. Ingredient labeling allows us to see what is in our food and products, and it gives us a rough idea on which ingredients make up the bulk of the product. All ingredients found on a product’s ingredient list are required to be listed from largest to smallest quantity based on weight. We need to be careful in drawing too many assumptions from the label hierarchy because many active ingredients do not require large amounts to work effectively. We will touch on this in later a post when we do a deeper dive into reading and understanding product-specific labeling.

There are also marketing labels that tend to refer to the ingredients themselves. Some of these labels, like “USDA Organic,” require manufacturers to earn certification to use the label. Other marketing labels, such as “All Natural,” do not require certification. In an upcoming post, we will go through marketing labels and explain how they inform consumers about the ingredients found in products.

Pharmaceutical labeling requirements are much stricter and more robust than other labeling requirements and are necessarily highly regulated by the federal government. Over-the-counter medications will list active and inactive ingredients in the “Drug Facts” section that help us understand the key elements in these remedies. Prescription medications will also list ingredients in the required paperwork. However, it’s best to work with a credentialed physician or pharmacist when seeking to understand ingredients within prescription pharmaceuticals. 

Why do we need labeling?

Accurate labeling prevents product fraud and helps us compare products between brands and other goods that perform a similar function but with different active ingredients. This allows us to make choices based on personal preferences and enables us to do additional research on specific ingredients.

Perhaps most important, labeling requirements provide crucial information for individuals with allergies, intolerances, or other needs that require avoiding contact with or consumption of specific ingredients.

In our next post, we will review reading and understanding ingredient labels on products. 

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