Reading Food Labels: The Basics

Reading food labels is like learning another language.  At first you feel like it’s this really hard thing to do but once you learn how it’s fairly easy.  The key is to knowing how to read the food labels and understand what they are telling you.  You don’t want to have to carry your cell everywhere and go “hold on while I google that ingredient”.  You will learn with time what things are – you just have to put the time into learning.

My personal rule of thumb is that if the word on the ingredients is so long or difficult to pronounce it’s probably a chemical of some sort and I don’t need that.  It’s best to use the rule of thumb:

“When in doubt, leave it out”

So first things first how do you read the label?   Well you should know that the list of ingredients is required to be listed in descending order of predominance.  Basically the ingredient you have the most of is listed first, then the next most and so on.

For example:   Red Licorice (Red Vines)

Ingredients: Corn Syrup, Wheat Four, Citric Acid, Artificial Flavor, Red 40

Allergen Information: Contains Wheat


So they are listed by “weight” from heaviest to lightest.  On a side note, you’d think licorice would be all sugar but it’s not!


The FDA has a limited list of food allergens that are considered “major” and must be on the label by law here they are:



Fish (all types)

Crustacean shellfish

Tree Nuts





The key I want to point out here is that gluten is wheat, barley and rye (and any cross breeds of those grains) but they aren’t all listed.  Only wheat is listed.  This can and is problematic.    Some of my original research showed that caramel coloring was wheat based; now it’s showing more barley.   This is still a food allergen but one that does NOT have to legally be reported because barely is not on that list.


For example:  Malt is made from barley.  So let’s take Malted Milk Balls.



brachs malted balls ingredients


As you see there is “Barley Malt” listed but where it needs to list allergies “Contains: Milk, Wheat, and Soy” you see that barley is NOT listed.  This is a problem because people who have celiac or a gluten allergy and see something “gluten free” or better yet a friend or family member who is trying to cook for someone with such an allergy just doesn’t know.


So it can be listed as “gluten free” and still have gluten in it.  If you go to any forums or posting boards for gluten free eating people will argue that they can’t do that – but they can because wheat is the only one by law that has to be flagged.


The other thing to be aware of, per Section 6 Ingredients Lists, covers several things that would probably shock you.


“If an ingredient is present at an incidental level and has no functional or technical effect in the finished product, then it need not be declared on the label.  …. Note that major food allergens regardless of whether they are present in the food in trace amounts, must be declared”.


Again this means barley and rye don’t have to be listed.  You can always learn more about food labeling if you visit the FDA’s website.

I know that reading labels can be challenging – don’t let it overwhelm you.  Feel free to comment or drop me an email and I’d be happy to try to help you out.

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