What Food Labels Really Mean
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2021. | Last updated: March 2022
Food packages are designed to entice you to buy the food tucked inside. Part of that design includes words like “zero calories” or “less fat than the leading brand.” But did you know food companies must follow specific rules when making nutritional claims about their food?
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has specific definitions for what nutritional claims mean. Understanding these claims can help you make better choices when grocery shopping. Check out what some common food marketing terms really mean.1-3
Calories and sugar
- Calorie-free: Less than 5 calories per serving (or other designated amount).
- Light or lite: One-third fewer calories, 50 percent less fat, or 50 percent less sodium than the regular version.
- Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.
- No added sugar: No sugar or sugar-containing ingredient, such as corn syrup, was added as the food was made.
- Reduced calorie, reduced sugar, or less sugar: At least 25 percent fewer calories or other ingredients (fat or sugar) than the regular product.
- Sugar free: Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.
Fat and cholesterol
- Cholesterol free: 2 mg or less of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
- Extra lean: Less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol.
- Fat free: Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving and no ingredient that is fat.
- Lean: Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 g of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol.
- Low cholesterol: 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving.
- Low fat: 3 grams of fat or less per serving (and not more than 30 percent of calories from fat for meals and main dishes).
- Low in saturated fat: 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving, or saturated fat makes up no more than 15 percent of total calories.
- No trans fats: A food may still have up to 0.5 grams of trans fat and still be labeled trans-fat free.
- Reduced cholesterol: At least 25 percent less cholesterol than the regular product.
- Light or lite in salt, lightly salted: At least 50 percent less sodium than the regular version.
- Low sodium: 140 mg or less of sodium per serving.
- No salt added or unsalted: No salt added during processing. If there is still salt in the food, the label must say “not a sodium free food” or “not for control of sodium in the diet.”
- Reduced or less sodium: At least 25 percent less salt than the regular product.
- Sodium free or salt free: Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving, and no ingredient that is sodium chloride or contains salt.
- Very low sodium: 35 mg or less of sodium per serving.
Other food marketing terms
- Fresh: Raw food that has not been frozen, heat processed, or preserved in any way.
- Gluten-free: Contains 20 parts per million or less of gluten.
- Good source of fiber: Contains 10 to 19 percent of average daily fiber needs.
- High fiber or excellent source of fiber: Contains 20 percent or more of average daily fiber needs.
- Natural: Specific meaning only with meat and poultry products, where it indicates that chemical preservatives, hormones, and other similar substances have not been added. Not restricted in meaning when it appears on other types of foods.
- Organic food: Food made without antibiotics, growth hormones, radiation, and conventional pesticides and fertilizers.