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Understanding food labels

There is lots of info on food packages these days. You may find it all a little overwhelming. Don't worry! Our guide makes the information easy to digest. Keep reading to learn how to read a Nutrition Facts label, what "low-fat" means, and more. Check out:

The Nutrition Facts label arrow top

The U.S. government has rules for the information that is in the Nutrition Facts box on food packages. All packages have to include the same facts, so you can compare the packages to see which choice is best for you. For example, let's say you want to try to eat more fiber. You can look at two boxes of cereal to see which offers the most. You also can use the label to keep track of nutrients you should eat, like calcium. And you can see how much you're eating of nutrients you should limit, like sodium. Use the tool below to learn about each item in the box.

(If you are have trouble viewing the tool above, please take a look at our text version of this tool. Viewing the above requires the Adobe Flash Player.)

You also can learn how to use the label to make your calories count.

Ingredients lists arrow top

The ingredients list on a food package tells you what items are used to make the product. The ingredients are listed in order from most to least, so the product has the largest amount of those items at the start of the list. You can use the ingredients list to look for items you want to limit, such as added sugars, or items that you need to avoid because of food allergies.

Other food label terms arrow top

In addition to the Nutrition Facts label, you may see lots of other words describing packaged foods. The government has rules for certain claims that food companies make. These include things like "fat-free," "reduced calorie," or "light." Here is what some of those terms mean:

Calorie claims

  • Low-calorie means 40 calories or less per serving.
  • Reduced-calorie means at least 25% fewer calories per serving compared with the full calorie food.
  • Light or lite means the food has half as much fat (or even less) than a similar food. If the food gets less than half its calories from fat, "light" or "lite" means it has half as much fat as a similar food or 30% fewer calories.

Sugary words

  • Sugar-free means less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving.
  • Reduced sugar means a product has at least 25 percent less sugar per serving compared with the regular-sugar food. So, the product still could have a lot of sugar even though it has less than a similar one.

Are you free to eat lots of fat-free food?

Fat-free food sounds good. But that does not mean you can eat tons of it. To make them taste better, fat-free and low-fat foods may have lots of added sugar or sodium, which aren't good for you. And if you want to be a healthy weight, what matters is the total amount of calories you eat and use through activity — not how much fat you eat. Also, keep in mind that sometimes a fat-free food has just as many calories as a regular one, depending on how much of other ingredients are added.

Fat facts

  • Fat-free or 100% fat-free means less than 1/2 gram of fat per serving.
  • Low-fat means 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
  • Reduced-fat means at least 25% less fat when compared with the regular-fat food. So, the product still could have a lot of fat in it.

What's "organic"?

  • The USDA organic seal means that the U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies that a food is organic, which means that it is made without using things like pesticides, fertilizers made from sewerage, and antibiotics. You can learn more about the USDA organic program.
  • 100% organic means that all the ingredients in the food are organic.
  • Organic means that if a food has more than one ingredient in it, at least 95% of the ingredients are organic.
  • Made with organic ingredients means that 70% of the item is organic.

Sodium and salt sayings

  • Low-sodium means the food has 140 milligrams (mg) or less of sodium per serving.
  • Very low-sodium means a food has 35 mg or less of sodium per serving.
  • Reduced or less salt or sodium means that a product has 25% less than a similar food.
  • Light in sodium or lightly salted means the product has less than 50% salt or sodium than a similar product.

More food for thought

food informationYou may see other information on the front of a food package. For example, you may have noticed information in small circles or images like the one here. This is information that the food company has decided to highlight. Remember that the information is for each serving. So, if a product says "100 calories per serving," you need to know what counts as a serving. It may be less than you would usually eat. Also, the food company may want to point out something great about a food. Maybe it has low sodium or not much sugar. But the food may have some problems too — like lots of fat or calories. Your best bet is to read the Nutrition Facts label, which has all the info you need.


Content last reviewed November 05, 2013
Page last updated April 09, 2014