How to Read Food Labels

Go into any grocery store and you are bombarded with food labels that make claims about the food trying to beat out their competition. I know as a busy mom of two boys, the grocery store can be chaotic. There’s no time to read all the labels without risking surprises showing up at check out or things being knocked off shelves. So much of what is on the food label  is marketing thought up by people to make their food seem like it is better than the other guy. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about this and it is even confusing sometimes to me.

Below are some things that you may see on a food label that confuse you. And my attempt to clarify it to make it easier and less time consuming for you  at the grocery store.

USDA Organic Seal

Source: USDA Organic Labeling and Marketing document.

Products labeled as “100 percent organic” must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients and processing aids..

Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List including specific non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.


All Natural

Source: FDA

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.


May contain (as applies to food allergens)

This is near and dear to me because my son is allergic to milk, peanuts and tree nuts.

Source: Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which took effect January 1, 2006, mandates that the labels of foods containing major food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy) declare the allergen in plain language, either in the ingredient list or via:

  • the work “Contains” followed by the name of the major food allergen – for example, “Contains milk, wheat” – or
  • a parenthetical statement in the list of ingredients – for example, “albumin (egg)”

Such ingredients must be listed if they are present in any amount, even in colors, flavors or spice blends. Additionally, manufacturers must list the specific nut (e.g. almond, walnut, cashew) or seafood (e.g. tuna, salmon, shrimp, lobster) that is used.

Although FALCPA has made label reading easier for the millions of Americans living with food allergies, please continue to read all labels on all packages carefully.


FDA Specifications for Health Claims and Descriptive Terms

Source: FDA, Health Check Systems

The FDA also provides guidelines about the claims and descriptions manufacturers may use in food labeling to promote their products:


Requirements that must be met before using the claim in food labeling


Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, with no added fat or oil

Low fat

3 grams or less of fat per serving

Less fat

25% or less fat than the comparison food

Saturated Fat Free

Less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat and 0.5 grams of trans-fatty acids per serving


Less than 2 mg cholesterol per serving, and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving

Low Cholesterol

20 mg or less cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving

Reduced Calorie

At least 25% fewer calories per serving than the comparison food

Low Calorie

40 calories or less per serving

Extra Lean

Less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol per (100 gram) serving of meat, poultry or seafood


Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 g of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol per (100 gram) serving of meat, poultry or seafood

Light (fat)

50% or less of the fat than in the comparison food (ex: 50% less fat than our regular cheese)

Light (calories)

1/3 fewer calories than the comparison food


5 grams or more fiber per serving


Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving

Sodium-Free or Salt-Free

Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving

Low Sodium

140 mg or less per serving

Very Low Sodium

35 mg or less per serving


A food low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and contains at least 10% of the Daily Values for vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber.

“High”, “Rich in” or “Excellent Source”

20% or more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient per serving

“Less”, “Fewer” or

At least 25% less of a given nutrient or calories than the comparison food

“Low”, “Little”, “Few”, or “Low Source of”

An amount that would allow frequent consumption of the food without exceeding the Daily Value for the nutrient – but can only make the claim as it applies to all similar foods

“Good Source Of”, “More”, or “Added”

The food provides 10% more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient than the comparison food

Sign up for my newsletter or contact me to get my tips on nutrition, fitness and health success. Click here for more info on the healthiest meal of the day!