Labels – Understanding ingredient labels

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

What is an ingredient label, and what information can we discern from it?

Ingredient labels are printed on packaging materials or the product and inform us of the ingredients that make up the product we are using or consuming.

We can gauge how much specific ingredients make up the end product by noticing the list order of the ingredients. All ingredients found on a product’s ingredient list are required to be listed from largest to smallest quantity based on weight or concentration.

For example, we can explore the ingredient list on a food product such as potato chips. Typically, you’ll find “potatoes” listed first as it makes up the bulk of the product. Next, you’re likely to see “vegetable oil (sunflower, corn, and/or canola oil)” listed, followed by the least used ingredient “salt” which in this case enhances the flavor.

Another example is hand lotion. Typically, you’ll find “water (aqua)” listed as the first ingredient, this means the majority of the product is made up of water. Next, you may find “glycerin” which is a humectant or an ingredient that retains moisture. As you go down the list, you can get a sense of which ingredients make up most of the product. At the end of the ingredient list, you will find ingredients added in the smallest amounts, for lotions that could be a preservative, artificial color, fragrance, or even an active ingredient depending on the concentration needed!

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. Using our above examples, we know salt adds flavor to potato chips and is an essential ingredient, even though it’s added in a small amount. With lotions or other cosmetics, the active ingredient may be like the salt; only a little bit is needed to work effectively. 

How do cosmetic, food, OTC medication, and other household product labels differ?

Ingredients will always be listed from the largest to smallest quantity based on weight regardless of the product. However, each product has specific differences.

  • Cosmetic labels provide an overview of what the product does, the ingredients in the product, and any allergens (e.g., nut oils, etc.). 
  • Food labels will have the ingredient list under the “Nutrition Facts” heading to provide vital nutrient information for the product. It will also list allergen information. 
  • OTC medications will list ingredients under the "Drug Facts" heading, including the active ingredients as a percentage of the total product as well as the inactive ingredients listed from largest to smallest quantity. Additionally, there will be critical dosage and other medically relevant information. 
  • Other household products such as cleaning solutions will list the ingredients as well as any hazards that could come from the products (e.g., prevent contact with eyes, etc.). 

You will notice the common thread across all labels is to provide enough information to help keep people safe and informed about what they will be using and consuming.  

Should I be afraid of the ingredients I cannot pronounce?

No, manufacturers are required to add ingredients by names people can identify1,2 and are unique to that specific ingredient. Many times that will include the long technical name. A great example is the ingredient “sodium hydrogen carbonate.” While the scientific name is unfamiliar and may seem risky, sodium hydrogen carbonate is simply the technical name for the familiar ingredient, baking soda!

If you are unfamiliar with an ingredient, there are many tools and databases available that allow you to research individual ingredients such as PubChemUSDA Food Composition DatabaseFDA Databases, and more.

By researching ingredients before becoming fearful of the names, we can better understand how the ingredient functions and its safety without undue fear.

What else do I need to know?

Ingredient labels and marketing labels differ, and the ingredient labels discussed in the post are federally mandated to be accurate.

In the next post, we will discuss marketing labels and how they differ from federal and state-mandated labeling. 

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