What do you look for when you check a food label? Some people may check for fat content, while other may want to see if the product contains whole grains or meat byproducts.

Companies have been required to list the nutritional information on the packaging of food products since 1994; however, what's written on the package may be presented in an intentionally misleading way. Here's what you need to know about the meaning of common words and descriptions so you can make educated decisions on your next trip to the grocery store.

How to Read a Food Label

The first step in reading any food label is recognizing the elements that are on it. Although some labels may contain different information than others, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all food labels contain the following basic facts.

  • Serving size. Serving sizes are standardized as cups, pieces, slices, and other measurements. The serving size of a food is one of the most important and overlooked sections on the label. Sure, the pasta you had for dinner may only have 100 calories per serving, but the standard serving size is a half a cup of cooked pasta. If you had two cups of pasta, you actually consumed four servings or 400 calories. When reading nutritional facts, keep the serving size in mind.

  • Calories and calories from fat. Calories are the measure of how much energy you get from food. However, excessive caloric intake can lead to weight gain and obesity. When looking at the calories listing on the label, consider these FDA general guidelines: 40 calories per serving is low, 100 is moderate, and 400 or more is high.

  • Nutrients. Limiting some nutrients while making sure you get enough of others can be tricky. Try to limit sugar, fat, and cholesterol by paying attention to the percent daily values and by choosing foods with low values in these areas. Make sure you get your allotted amount of dietary fiber, total carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for a balanced diet.

  • Ingredients. The ingredient list is listed quantitatively from the most to the least amount. Use the ingredient list to verify claims, such as "all natural." For example, in 2007, 7-UP was forced to remove its "all-natural" labeling. The soda contains high fructose corn syrup, which is not considered natural because the chemical bonds in glucose and fructose are broken down and rearranged.

Label Translations

Ever wonder if you're better off eating the low-fat food or the low-calorie option? Which is better for you? Both claims sound great, but what do they really mean? Here's a cheat sheet (using guidelines from the FDA) for you to use next time you're trying to decipher a food claim.

  • Calorie free. For those who count calories, calorie-free products can be a blessing. However, keep in mind that the FDA qualifies something as calorie-free if it contains less than five calories per serving. Although these amounts may seem trivial, they can add up the more you eat or drink.

  • Fat free. The requirements for labeling a food fat-free is that must be under 0.5 grams of fat per serving. As a result, the more servings you eat, the more fat you ingest. Also pay attention to the sugar content on low-fat products. Foods that are high in sugar, even if they're low in fat, can put fat on your midsection. The only way to circumvent these sneaky maneuvers is to read the label and the ingredients, and make sure they're up to your standards.

  • Low. This term varies by food product. Here's what low really means:

    • Low-fat: 3 grams or less per serving
    • Low-sodium: 140 milligrams or less per serving
    • Low-saturated fat: 1 gram or less per serving
    • Low-cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving

    Take, for example, a product like Prairie Farms Low-Fat Cottage Cheese, which has 2.5 grams of fat for a half cup serving. It meets the low-fat requirements, but the fat content can potentially add up over time.


  • Light or lite. Like low, these terms can also mean a few different things. Light could mean that the product has one-third less calories than the reference food, which is often the original product or a similar competitor. Or it could mean that it has half the fat of the reference food. Check the labels to make sure light is keeping its promise.

  • Lean. A term used for red meat, poultry, and seafood, lean or extra-lean is often used to gauge how healthy the product is.

    • Lean: The meat should contain less than 10 grams fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol in a serving.

    • Extra-lean: The meat should contain less than 5 grams fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol in a serving.

  • Whole grains. Incorporating whole wheat in your diet can provide you with energy and lower your cholesterol. But watch out: Some products that claim to contain whole grains or whole wheat may have nothing but refined flour as their wheat or grain. However, refined flour has none of the benefits that 100-percent whole wheat flour does. Check the ingredients list: Whole wheat flour should be listed first, without other flours mixed in.

  • Organic. More and more people are choosing organic foods, but many may not know exactly what they're paying for. The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) creates the guidelines and the National Organic Program enforces the rules for what can be labeled organic. Here's the difference between 100 percent organic and organic.

    • 100 percent organic: means that products can only contain organically produced ingredients.

    • Organic: means that at least 95 percent of the ingredients listed must be organically grown.

    Keep in mind that terms like "natural" and "made with organic ingredients" are not subject to the same regulations.

Don't Get Duped by Misleading Labels

As the demand for low-fat, low-calorie, and whole grain goods increases, manufacturers are making more products to fill that need. However, amidst the healthy fat-free yogurts and whole wheat pitas are foods that are misleadingly labeled, so you may think they're more wholesome than they really are.

For example, Pizzeria Uno ran an ad in 1995 claiming that it sold a "great tasting, low-fat, thin-crust pizza." It was forced to withdraw the low-fat claim because the pizzas did not meet the three grams of fat per serving requirement. The pizzas actually contained 14 to 36 grams of fat per serving.

What's more, in the last decade, the Federal Trade Commission has confronted other major brands, such as Haagen Dazs frozen yogurt, CremaLita frozen dessert, and Dannon yogurt for making false claims on calories, fat, and sugar in advertisements. All of the companies, under pressure from the FDA, have agreed to change their ads.