Understanding Food Labels

Words that companies use on their packaging to describe their foods can be confusing sometimes. The FDA regulates the specific descriptive wording, but it can still be confusing to us- the consumers. For example, when you see a bag of jelly beans labeled “now fat free”.

You wonder “did they change the formula?” Nope. The jelly beans are pretty much pure sugar- and always have been. The package isn’t lying. There isn’t any fat in them. However, they have NEVER contained fat. Just sugar. The change in packaging was just done to confuse us as consumers into thinking that those jelly beans are now a healthier food.

Most people looking to lose weight try to read labels and all the packaging labeled “light”, “low-fat”, “non-fat”, or “reduced calorie” all sound very appealing. So how do we know which is right for us to choose?

Here is a list of FDA regulated food descriptions with the criteria that companies are required to meet to include these descriptions on their packaging.

  • Free: is often associated with fat free or sugar free. It meant that the product contains no amount of, or only trivial quantities of the said components. Less than 0.5 g per serving or less 5 calories per serving.
  • Low: can be used if the foods can be consumed regularly without causing excessive intakes of said component it is referring to.
  • Low Calorie: less than 40 calories per serving.
  • Low fat: less than 3 grams of fat per serving.
  • Low sodium: less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Light: This one has 3 possible meanings. 1.) It has 1/3 fewer calories or half the fat. 2.) the sodium content of a low calorie, low fat food has been reduced by 50%. 3.) the term describes the color, texture or other property as long as it explains it’s meaning.
  • Reduced: the contents contain at least 25% less of the component than the original.
  • Lean: less than 10 grams fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol per serving per 100 grams.
  • Extra lean: less than 5 grams fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, less than 95 mg of cholesterol per serving.
  • Good Source: 10-19% of the daily value of said item.
  • High In: 20% or more of daily value of said item
  • Extra: at 10% more than the daily value in the referenced food.
  • Very low sodium: 35 mg or less soium
  • Sodium free: less than 5 mg per serving
  • High Fiber: 5g or more of fiber per serving


Where to Find The Information on the Label

  1. Nutrition information panel – This panel shows the average amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in a serve and in 100 g (or 100 ml) of the food. The amount of any other nutrient or substance about which a nutrition content or health claim is made must also be shown (e.g. the amount of calcium must be shown if a claim about calcium is made).
  2. Percentage labeling –  Food labels must show the percentage of the key or characterizing ingredients or components in the food. This allows similar foods to be compared.
  3. Food identification –  To help identify a food, food labels must show:
    • the name of the food
    • the name and business address  of the supplier of the food
    • the lot identification of the food.
    The name or description of the food must reflect  its true nature (e.g. strawberry yogurt must contain strawberries). If the yogurt contained strawberry flavoring rather than real fruit,  then the name would need to indicate that it is
    strawberry-flavored yogurt.
  4. Information for people with food allergies or intolerances – Some food ingredients and substances can cause severe allergic reactions and must be declared when present in a food. These ingredients are peanuts, tree nuts (e.g. cashews, almonds, and walnuts), crustacea, fish, milk, eggs,  sesame, soybeans, and wheat. Sulphites (if added at 10 mg or more per kg of food) and cereals containing gluten (e.g. wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt) also need to be declared.
  5. Date marking – Foods that should be eaten before a certain date for health or safety reasons must be labelled with a use–by date.
    Otherwise a best–before date is required if the food has a shelf life of less than two years. Although it may be safe to eat a food after its best–before date, it may have lost quality and some nutritional value.
  6. Ingredient list – Ingredients must be listed in descending order (by ingoing weight). So if an ingredient is listed near the
    start of the list, then the food contains more of this ingredient than others lower down the list.
  7. Food additives – Food additives must be identified  in the ingredient list, usually by their class name (e.g. ‘thickener’
    or ‘color’) followed by the food additive name or number.
  8. Directions for use and storage –  Where specific storage conditions are required for  a food to keep until its best-before or use-by date,
    those conditions must be included on the label. If the food must be used in accordance with certain directions for health or safety reasons,
    those directions must be included on the label.
  9. Nutrition and health claims –  Nutrition content claims are claims about the content of certain nutrients or substances in a food, (e.g. ‘contains calcium’). Health claims refer to a relationship between a food and health. There are rules for when nutrition content or health claims are made on food labels.


We all want to be healthy. I hope this helps a little when food shopping in reading food labels, so you can make the best decisions for you in your food purchases and not be tricked by the food companies packaging.

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