Return to Articles of Interest


How To Decode Food Labels

If people consumed nothing but fresh food, there would be no food labels to inspect.  But such a diet is not practical. So processed or prepared foods - from mustard to canned tuna fish - allow us to eat a varied and healthful diet without spending every waking minute at the stove.

By law, any food that's even minimally processed - like canned tuna or vegetables - must be labeled. Basic information includes the name of the food, the ingredients (listed in order according to weight), and the net weight of the contents (that is, not including the packaging).

If a food carries a nutritional claim like "low-sodium" or "sugar-free," the label must provide additional, more specific information.  Nutritional information must specify:

  • Portion size.
  • Number of servings per package.
  • Calories per serving.
  • Amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat per serving (measured in grams).
  • Amount of sodium per serving (measured in milligrams).
  • Vitamins and minerals supplied, in percentages of U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances.

Some product labels may indicate the number of milligrams of cholesterol per serving.  This is only required if the label claims the food is low in cholesterol.

Here are some other frequently used labeling terms and what they mean.

  • Low calorie.  Applies to foods containing no more than 40 calories per serving or per 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces). The label must substantiate this claim.
  • Reduced calorie.  Can be used for foods with at least one-third fewer calories than comparable, nutritionally equivalent foods that are not calorie reduced.
  • Dietetic.  Can be used to designate foods intended for special diets, such as sodium-restricted or reduced-sugar diets (but not necessarily low-calorie diets).
  • Sugar-free.  Applies to food using artificial sweeteners.
  • Sodium-free.  Contains less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Very low sodium.  Contains 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
  • Low sodium.  Contains 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
  • Reduced sodium.  Applies to foods that contain 75 percent less sodium than comparable foods that aren't sodium-reduced.
  • Light, lite, leaner, or lower fat.  Must contain 25 percent less fat than comparable, nutritionally equivalent foods.
  • Lean or low fat.  Must contain less than 10 percent fat.
  • Extra lean.  Must contain no more than 5 percent fat.
  • 100 percent vegetable oil.  Applies to foods that contain no animal fat.  This term may be accurate but misleading. Hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) vegetable oils and tropical oils like coconut oil raise blood cholesterol levels in much the same way animal fats do. 

From "A Year of Health Hints" by Don R. Powell, Ph.D.