How To Read Food Labels

Reading food labels can get very confusing. We’ve spent many pages explaining a best-by date, sell-by date and use-by date that are found on foods, but what about all the other code words that are stamped onto food labels? Many of the terms commonly printed on food packaging labels can be misleading or confusing. Sometimes, consumers are tricked into purchasing products that may not actually be what a few chosen key words may lead you to believe. There are many of these words in print – some are strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) while others are not. We will attempt, in the chart below, to help you decode many of the commonly used food label terms trending on packaging.

Knowing how to read food labels will make you a smarter shopper and more informed consumer. First we’ll talk about print that attempts to deal with fat content with such words as “extra lean”, “low-calorie”, “light”, “low fat”, “reduced fat”, and “99% fat-free” and then other common terms like “natural”, “multigrain”, and “excellent source of”. There’s also a recommendation column to help you make decisions in the supermarket that are right for you and your dietary needs.

How to Read Food Labels

Food Labels Definition Recommendation
Lean This is an actual FDA food label. In order for meats, poultry and seafood to be labeled “lean” every 100 gram serving can contain no more than 10 grams of total fat, including less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. Go for “extra lean” if you if you’re cutting back on fat, since “lean” has twice as much fat.
Extra Lean This is an actual FDA food label with a strict requirement. In order for meats, poultry and seafood to be labeled “extra lean” every 100 gram serving must contain less than 5 grams of total fat, including less than 2 grams of saturated fat and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. Go for “extra lean” if you if you’re cutting back on fat, since “lean” has twice as much fat.
Light A food using this distinction, must be lighter in some way. That’s right, the FDA does not strictly define this term. “Light” can be used if the product has fewer calories, but also if the product is lighter in flavor, texture or color than the original product. For instance, light corn syrup refers only to the color of the syrup – both light and regular have the same number of calories! Read the Nutrition Label. If you are looking for fewer calories you can compare them to the original. Also, beware of the price label… “light” versions quite often carry a “heavier” price tag!
Low Calorie A “low calorie” food gives you 40 calories or less per serving. This is strictly defined by the FDA. Look for “low calorie” as opposed to “light” when counting calories, but beware that serving sizes can vary with products.
Low Fat A food must contain less than 3 grams of fat per serving to carry the “low fat” label per the FDA. Low fat is usually better, but not always.
Reduced Fat In order to be labeled “reduced fat” the food must contain at least 25% less fat than the original product. Read the nutrition facts label. Often, companies will substitute potentially less desirable things for the fat. For instance, “reduced fat” peanut butter contains more sodium and sugar than the regular product in order add back flavor.
99 Percent Fat-Free This term is misleading because if deals with the weight of the food. So, if the food weighs 100 grams, then one gram comes from fat. Every gram of fat contains 9 calories. Depending on the serving size, you could be consuming more fat calories than first imagined.
“High”, “Rich In”, or “Excellent Source Of” 20% or more of the Daily Recommended Value of the referenced item is contained in the product. If it’s a nutrient you need more of, this could be useful.
“Good Source”, “Contains” or “Provides” 10-19% of the Daily Recommended Value of that item is contained in the product. “High” beats “Good”.
Multigrain This means that the product contains two or more grains. Be careful – many multigrain products are “refined grains” which are milled. Milling removes the nutrient-rich and fiber-rich parts during processing! Look for “whole grains” in the ingredient list.
Whole Grain This means that the product contains the entire grain, including the nutrient-rich and fiber-rich coverings. Look for “whole” grains, like “whole wheat” or “whole oats”, as one of the first items in the ingredients list. Look for this whole grain icon: whole-grain-stamp
Natural For meats, poultry and eggs: the product must not contain any artificial ingredients or added color and is only processed in order to preserve it, make it safe or separate it into parts. For any other product (besides meats and eggs) there is NO regulation on the word “natural”. “Natural” does not necessarily mean “good for you”. For instance, meats & eggs can contain additives and flavor enhancers and other foods can contain unhealthy preservatives or other ingredients.
Reduced Sugar The product contains 25% less sugar than the original product. If you need to limit your sugar intake, then you might want to reach for these products.
Low Sugar This term is not regulated, so it can mean anything. Check the nutrition facts label to determine the amount of sugar.
No Sugar Added No sugar was added during the preparation process of the product. This product is not necessarily low in sugar. Check the nutrition label and remember that sugar can go by many names (including syrup, sweeteners and most items ending in “ose”). The American Heart Association recommends a daily maximum of 24 grams of sugar.
Made With Real Fruit This doesn’t necessarily mean “whole fruit” – it can be fruit extract or juice which contains more sugar and less nutrients than whole fruit. Also, there is no rule as to how much fruit must be in the product. Check the ingredient list. Since ingredients are listed in the order of volume, if fruit isn’t one of the first few ingredients then there probably isn’t much fruit in the product.
Trans-fat Free This label is has a loophole and products may still contain small amounts of dangerous trans fat. Check the ingredient list. If the term “partially hydrogenated” is used, it’s an indicator of trans fats lurk within.

Additional Info

How to read food labels is a good thing to know, especially if you have health reasons to limit certain ingredients. It’s important to remember that the FDA regulates some words strictly and others not so much and some not at all.

For more definitions, like “organic” and gluten-free see our FAQ.

To find out how long other foods are good for, please visit the Dairy, Drinks, Fruits, Grains, Proteins, Vegetables and Other sections of Eat By Date or use the search function below.

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