All Articles Food CPG Clearing up label confusion: What you need to know about nutritional claims

Clearing up label confusion: What you need to know about nutritional claims

5 min read


Made with organic ingredients. 100% organic. Gluten-free. Processed on equipment that processes tree nuts. May contain peanuts. All-natural.

The claims foodservice companies make about their products — based on FDA and USDA regulations or not — can be confusing at best, both for consumers and commercial foodservice operators.

As members of the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative’s Nutritional Attribute Requirements Task Group, we at Compass Group and the other companies and dietitians involved know first-hand the confusion these claims and labels cause in the marketplace. Our main work involves assisting in the development of an online database for nutritional, allergen and other foodservice product information that restaurants and other foodservice operators as well as dietitians, nutritionists, purchasers and foodservice managers can use to research products, develop their menus and determine the nutritional and allergen content of their food. In GS1 Standards terms, we call this database the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN).

Dealing with claims becomes even more of a challenge when you’re determining how best to upload and enter data in a digital, online format. For example, what type of standardized field do you create for the many ways to say “may contain tree nuts” or “processed in a facility that manufactures products with nuts,” or “processed on equipment that processes nuts?” And, denoting an organic product is not as simple as checking off a “yes” or “no” box.

Another main task is to figure out which nutritionals and claims to include in the GDSN. In regard to menu-labeling legislation, many restaurants need to publish 11 nutritional “attributes” on their menu boards, but people working in schools have a completely different set of criteria. Hospitals and senior living foodservice professionals have to report even more nutrients and claims for their menus and recipes, a total of 30 in some cases.

Our task group recently released updated guidelines for manufacturers to use in uploading their foodservice product information — including claims information — to the GDSN. We have worked hard to standardize this varied and variable information, and we want to share that with you. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know about organic, gluten-free and allergen claims. You can download the GS1 US Foodservice GDSN Attribute Guide from GS1 US’ website.


For some time, “organic” didn’t mean anything, but now the USDA regulates that claim. However, there are different “levels” of organic, according to government label laws. There is “100% organic,” which means that every ingredient is organic and the product was not processed on the same equipment used to process non-organic food. Other labels can say, “made with organic ingredients,” which denotes a certain percentage of the product as organic. In that case, the majority of ingredients might be organic, but lesser ingredients, such as enzymes or leavening agents in an organic blueberry muffin, for example, don’t have to be labeled as such.


The FDA recently updated its “gluten-free” label requirements, allowing products containing 20 parts per million gluten or less to use the “free” claim, a significant change from the previous 200 parts per million. The government agency has been researching what the tolerance threshold is and should be for those with celiac disease and wheat allergies. Twenty parts per million is basically a sterile environment for manufacturing, but we can’t achieve that in most kitchens.


Not long ago, the FDA updated its laws for allergy warnings, with new requirements to list any or all of the eight major allergens in common language. Previously, labels could say things like “contains whey” or “albumen.” But now, the FDA requires labels to use the words “wheat,” “egg,” “soy,” “milk,” “peanuts,” “tree nuts,” “fish” and “shellfish.” Allergy warnings become more complicated when you’re dealing with cross-contamination. The challenge for our task force is dealing with products that might not normally contain nuts or be processed on machinery used to process other products with nuts, but if a major pie company has to ramp up production during the holiday season and use the pecan pie lines to produce its apple pies, that changes the way the apple pie product can be labeled.


“All-natural” claims are not regulated by the FDA or USDA so we have debated whether to include those predominantly marketing labels in our attribute requirements for the GDSN. Do we put more structure around these claims, even though they are not regulated? Or do we say that since the law does not regulate “all-natural,” we can’t use it in the system? Our thoughts have been to exclude it.


Proposition 37 in California, which was defeated, would have required manufacturers to identify whether their products were prepared or formulated with genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs). The proposal would also have prohibited labeling or advertising food as “natural.” Because of the sheer prevalence of GMOs in our food supply, it would certainly challenge manufacturers to research and identify all the GMOs or potentially GMO ingredients they use in their products — and for us as members of the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative looking to create consistencies around these claims.

As the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative continues to keep an open dialogue with manufacturers to determine how best to track and record these different claims and labels, restaurants and foodservice operators can do their part by doing their research, and by getting involved in the Initiative to help us understand what nutritional, allergen and other product information they will want to see in the GDSN.

Deanne Brandstetter, MBA, RD, DCN, is vice president of nutrition and wellness for Compass Group North America. Compass has been an active member of the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative since its launch in 2009.