Food Labels Decoded

Have you ever found yourself walking down the grocery store aisles wondering what exactly IS the difference between a “low calorie” food and a “reduced calorie” food? If they are the same thing then why do they have two different names? And if they aren’t the same, then what is the difference?!

I’m sure everyone has seen those and similarly confusing terms on food labels but do you really know their true meaning? Here is a breakdown of almost all the terms you will see in a typical grocery store and what they mean.

I’ll start us off with some general terms because most of the others build off these.

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The word “Free” on a label means the product is not likely to have any physiological consequences. A food that doesn’t naturally contain any nutrients may make this claim, but only as it applies to all foods that are similar. (An example could be, “applesauce, a fat-free food”). It is sometimes seen as no, zero, or without, and is often considered “nutritionally trivial”.

Good source of” means the product provides between 10 and 19 percent of the Daily Value* for a given nutrient per serving. (*Reference values developed by the FDA specifically for use on food labels.)

High” may also be seen as rich in or excellent source of and means that the product contains 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient per serving.

Less” could also be seen as fewer or reduced and means that the product contains at least 25 percent less of a given nutrient or calorie than the comparison food.

When “Organic” is used within the context of food labels it means that at least 95 percent of the product’s ingredients have been grown and processed according to the USDA regulations defining the use of fertilizers, pesticides, preservatives, and other chemical ingredients. Check out the Environmental Working Group for a complete list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.

Some products will use nutrient claims such as “rich in calcium” or health claims like “diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.” The difference between these two claims is that nutrient claims are statements that characterize the quantity of a nutrient in a food whereas health claims are statements that characterize the relationship between a nutrient or other substance in a food and a disease or health-related condition.

Nutrient Density promotes adequacy and calorie control and measures the amount of nutrients a food provides corresponding with the energy it provides. In other words, more nutrients and fewer calories mean a higher nutrient density.

To calculate the nutrient density of a food per serving, divide milligrams by calories. So for example, one cup of fat free milk has 85 calories and contains 300mg of calcium, which would mean that it contains 3.5 mg of calcium per calorie.

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Now lets build on these!!

Calorie Free– fewer than 5 calories per serving.

Low Calorie- contains 40 calories or less per serving.

Reduced Calorie- at least 25 percent fewer calories per serving.


Fat Free- could also be labeled as nonfat, zero-fat, or no-fat and means there are less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving and no added fat oil.

Low Fat- contains 3 grams of fat or less.

Percent Fat Free- can only be used if the product meets the criteria for low fat or fat-free and must reflect the amount of fat in 100 grams. (For example, a food containing 2.5 grams of fat per 50 grams could use the claim “95 percent fat free.”)

Lean- less then 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and trans fat combined, and 95 mg of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams of meat, poultry, and seafood.

Extra Lean- less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and trans fat combined, and 95 mg of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams of meat, poultry, and seafood.


Cholesterol Free- contains less than 2 mg cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat and trans fat combined per serving.

Low Cholesterol- has 20 mg or less cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat and trans fat combined per serving.

Less Cholesterol- contains 25 percent or less cholesterol than the comparison food and 2 grams or less saturated fat and trans fat combined per serving.


High Fiber- 5 grams or more per serving.


Sodium Free and Salt Free– contains less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.

Low Sodium- 140 mg or less per serving.

Very Low Sodium- 35 mg or less per serving.


The following terms refer to the milling process and the making of grain products. 

Fortified- The addition to a food of nutrients that were not originally present or present in insufficient amounts. This process can be used to correct or prevent a widespread nutrient deficiency or to balance the total nutrient profile of a food.

Refined- A process that removes the coarse parts of a food. (For example, when wheat is refined into flour the bran, germ, and husk is removed which leaves only the endosperm. May lose many nutrients during this process.)

Enriched- The addition to a food of nutrients that were lost during processing so that the food will meet a specific standard.

Whole Grain- A grain that maintains the same relative proportions of starchy endosperm, germ, and bran as the original; Not refined.

And there you have it! Now go forth and read labels!



Briana Eruren graduated from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville with a Bachelor of Science in Human Environmental Science with a concentration in Dietetics accredited by ACEND (the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics). She served as President of the Student Dietetic Association at the UofA from 2012-2013 and received an Outstanding Officer Award. She is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as well as the Arkansas Alumni Association. Some of her recent research includes The Use of Home Blenderized Tube Feedings for Children and How Honey Effects the Wound Healing Process. In her free time she enjoys cooking, baking, art (often combining the three), and spending time with her rescue dog, Sophie. Feel free to contact her at


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