Do You Know Nutrition: Understanding bar codes

By Phylis Canion
Jan. 14, 2014 at midnight
Updated Jan. 13, 2014 at 7:14 p.m.

I am a label reader, but I cannot find anywhere on a label where the food originated from. I am a bit weary of consuming foods from foreign countries, especially China, after the tainted food scare in 2008. Am I missing something on the label? A little bar code history would be great. I hope that if you have published an article before on this you would consider it again.

First, here is a bit of food products bar code history. The idea of a bar code was developed after an idea of making inventory automated. By 1952, Norman Woodland had built the first working bar code scanner.

The simplicity of the bar code scanner explains its popularity. Each bar on a bar code represents a different letter or symbol. A scanner uses a photosensitive light to read the width of each bar and translates it into readable characters on a computer.

The numbers listed under the bar code are simply for convenience in the event a product needs to be added or sold manually. Bar codes usually consists of 12 digits, with the first two digits indicating the country of origin. The first two or in some cases the first three digits listed on a product are referred to as the flag, and those numbers indicate in what country the bar code was issued.

If the bar code on a product begins with 690-695, the product was made in China. Some countries' bar codes only have two numbers, like the Unites States and Canada, whose code is 00-13.

Here are a list of others: Japan, 49; UK, 50; Switzerland, 76; Spain, 84; Mexico, 750; Taiwan, 471; Singapore, 888; Thailand, 885 and Malaysia, 955.

The next four digits identify the manufacturer, and the final six digits identify the product. Currently, the United States and Canada use Universal Product Code bar codes as their standard, whereas the rest of the world uses EAN, or International Article Number.

Since Jan. 1, 2005, all retail scanning systems in the U.S. must be able to accept the EAN symbol as well as the standard UPC. Thank you for reading your labels.

Thought for the week: "Life is 10 percent what you make it and 90 percent how you take it." - Irving Berlin

Phylis B. Canion is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and is a certified nutritional consultant, email her at This column is for nutritional information only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure.



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