This is a guest blog post by Richard Perlmutter, MS.
Though the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has many specific rules and regulations, it offers surprising latitude in choosing how ingredients are listed in foods.
One can list all of the ingredients in a product, beginning with the one that weighs the most, and ending with the one that weighs the least. This is called composite labeling. It is always used when the food is not composed of separate components. Composite labeling is used for soups, sauces, most candy and snack foods, condiments, desserts like pudding and ice cream, and many many other foods.
Conversely and if appropriate, one can develop separate ingredient lists for each component of a food product composed of easily distinguishable parts. This is called component labeling. It is most appreciated when the consumer can easily see the several parts to a food. Good examples are cake with icing, ice cream sandwiches composed of ice cream and wafers, and meatballs with sauce.
Comparing the two forms of labeling
To illustrate the difference, and to show the benefit of component labeling in a food prepared by combining two other foods, both composite and component labeling will be illustrated using a simple meatballs with tomato sauce recipe.
Approximately four pounds of meatballs are prepared from:
Similarly, the recipe for approximately two pounds of tomato sauce:
We will say a food manufacturer prepares containers with a net weight of 15 oz that contain 10 oz of meatballs and 5 oz of sauce.
The weight of the meatball ingredients in the container are: ground beef – 7.27 oz, bread crumbs – 0.91 oz, eggs – 0.76 oz, onions – 0.61 oz, water – 0.45 oz, sea salt – 0.05 oz, and a little pepper – 0.01 oz. These values were obtained by multiplying the recipe amounts by the fraction 10 oz/66 oz.
The weight of the tomato sauce ingredients in the container are:
crushed tomatoes – 4.11 oz, carrots – 0.29 oz, onions – 0.22 oz, olive oil – 0.15 oz, basil – 0.06 oz, sea salt – 0.04 oz, tomato paste – 0.03 oz, minced garlic – 0.02 oz, and a little pepper – 0.01 oz. These values were obtained by multiplying the recipe amounts by the fraction 5 oz/34 oz.
Notice that the two recipes share three ingredients: 0.61oz + 0.22oz =0.83 oz of onions; 0.05 oz + 0.04 oz = 0.09 oz of sea salt; and 0.01oz + 0.01oz = 0.02 oz of pepper.
The composite ingredient list looks like this: INGREDIENTS: Ground Beef, Crushed Tomatoes, Bread Crumbs, Onions, Eggs, Water, Carrots, Olive Oil, Sea Salt, Tomato Paste, Pepper, Minced Garlic. The weight (in ounces) of each ingredient is as follows: Ground Beef-7.27, Crushed Tomatoes-4.11, Bread Crumbs-0.91, Onions-0.83, Eggs-0.76, Water-0.45, Carrots-0.29, Olive Oil-0.15, Sea Salt-0.09, Tomato Paste-0.03, Pepper-0.02, and Minced Garlic-0.02.
The bread crumbs have their own list of ingredients, but the list is not included in this example.
The component ingredient list looks like this: INGREDIENTS: MEATBALLS (Ground Beef, Bread Crumbs, Eggs, Onions, Water, Salt, Pepper), SAUCE (Crushed Tomatoes, Carrots, Onions, Olive Oil, Basil, Sea Salt, Tomato Paste, Garlic, Pepper).
Logical and Long or Confusing and Concise
The component ingredient list is more helpful to the consumer, because it groups the ingredients in a logical fashion. With a composite list, one doesn’t know what goes with what. But an advantage of composite lists is that they are shorter in length. This is an important factor when the label has only a little space for the ingredient list.
Most ingredient lists are prepared with the use of a computer program that also generates the Nutrition Facts panel. It is easier, sometimes much easier, to prepare a composite ingredient list compared to a component ingredient list when using a computer program.
Each type of list has its advantages and disadvantages. Usually it is best to use component labeling for a food with easily identifiable parts. But if the parts share many ingredients the ingredient list may be so long that consumers won’t want to read it. If so, it is better to use a composite ingredient list.
Richard Perlmutter is the owner of Abington Nutrition Services LLC which prepares nutrition labeling for products manufactured by food and beverage companies. He also takes an interest in seeing that government nutrition policy is in line with nutritional science.