Food Labels: What Does It All Mean?

By Christine Salazar, RD

The federal government sets legal guidelines on the labels food manufacturers put on their products. The guidelines are supposed to regulate the claims made by these manufacturers and are meant to make it easier for the average consumer to make smart, healthy decisions. For example, if a label shows a claim about heart disease, then that food is low in cholesterol, fat or saturated fat. Why is the manufacturer of that product allowed to make such a claim? Research has proven that diets low in these nutrients lower the risk of heart disease. Similarly, health claims on food labels about high blood pressure and sodium mean the product is low in sodium. This claim is based on research which has shown that a diet low in sodium can decrease blood pressure (although this is not true for everyone). Cancer and fat health claims mean that the food must be low in fat or fat-free. Some food labels claim that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables and grain products that contain fiber “may” or “might” reduce the risk of heart disease. This means that the food must be a fruit, vegetable or grain product low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, and contain at least .6 grams of soluble fiber, unfortified, per serving.

How Accurate Are These Claims?

Many disease states, particularly the ones discussed above, are diet-related. Now let’s take a look at another food claim that could help reduce the risk of these diseases. Many packaged foods have “No Trans Fats” labels on the front of the product. The government will allow a company to label a product as such as long as it has less than five grams of trans fats per serving. It does not mean the product does not have any trans fats at all. One quick way to tell if a product has trans fats is to look at the ingredient list. If hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils are listed, then it does have trans fats.

How are Daily Values Calculated?

Many people see “% Daily Value” on nutrition labels and are confused by what it means. This percentage is based on a 2000 or 2500-calorie diet, which is supposed to be the average caloric intake for an American adult. If you consume fewer or more calories then your daily value percentage will increase or decrease accordingly. The nutrients that you want to keep your daily value percentages low in are total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. The nutrients you want to reach 100% of your daily value include carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals. It is important to reach these daily values by consuming a variety of foods, not just from a single food source.

Common Claims

You’ve probably noticed a lot of short statements on food packages. These are defined by specific claims that the government regulates. Here are some examples:


What It Says

What It Means

Calorie Free

Fewer than 5 calories per serving

Light or Lite

1/3 fewer calories or no more than 1/2 the fat of the higher-calorie, higher-fat version OR no more than 1/2 the sodium of the higher-sodium version

High Fiber

At least 5 grams of fiber per serving

Good source of fiber

2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber per serving

Low Fat

3 grams of fat or less per serving

Lean

Fewer than 10 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving


There are many more claims that food manufacturers put on their labels, but these are some of the most common ones. Remember: these labels are meant to help market the product to you, the consumer—so just because a product does not have a claim doesn’t mean it’s not a healthy choice.

What Counts as a Whole Grain?

The government recommends half of our grain intake comes from whole grain sources. So what do you look for on a package? Look for any “whole” grain on the ingredient list; for example, “whole wheat” or “whole oats.” Any whole grain will meet your nutritional requirements; just be sure to make sure the ingredient is listed as “whole.” Wheat flour, organic flour, multigrain, enriched wheat flour, bran, wheat germ, semolina, and durum wheat do not count as whole grains. If you see these ingredients listed, then the product you’re looking at is not a whole grain source. Products enriched with wheat flour are considered refined grain products. These are not the same as whole grain products. It’s important to understand the difference, since refined products have had their vitamins and minerals stripped away. Even if the product has been fortified, only some of those precious nutrients have been added back.

Tips to Take Home

The best thing to remember is to always read food labels—and especially the ingredient list—when making smart choices at the grocery store. A few quick tips to remember: no matter what nutrient these claims reference, “free” has the least amount of the nutrient, “very low” and “low” have a little more, and “reduced” or “less” means that the food has twenty-five percent less of that nutrient than the standard version of the food.