A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Food Labels: How to Decode the 11 Trickiest Terms

Supermarket packaging often contains common English words that are oddly confusing, like "natural" or "healthy." Here’s what you need to know.

1 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


A food that simulates another food but isn’t made of the same stuff is an imitation, right? Not quite. It should be labeled imitation only if it has a lower amount of protein or some other essential nutrient than the food it’s copying. Here are some nutrition claims on your food labels you should pay attention to—and others it’s safe to ignore.

2 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


Packages bearing the words fat-, sugar-, or sodium-free may still contain trace amounts of those substances. The FDA evaluates these terms according to a typical portion size known as an RACC (reference amounts customarily consumed per eating occasion). An RACC of eggnog, for example, is a half cup, and for croutons, it’s 7 g. To be labeled free of calories, a food should have fewer than 5 calories per RACC; to qualify as fat- or sugar-free, less than 0.5 g per RACC; and to be labeled sodium-free, fewer than 5 mg per RACC. Learn some other tricks nutrition labels use that you probably fall for.

3 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


This is also evaluated based on set portion sizes. For total fat, it’s fewer than 3 g per RACC. For calories, it’s fewer than 40, unless it’s a main meal; then it’s 120 or fewer per 100 g.

4 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


Don’t be fooled: Just because a product claims to have reduced fat or to contain less sugar doesn’t mean it’s low in the stuff you should avoid in excess. Such terms just mean the amount is lower than usual; the food might not meet the standard for low at all. These phrases indicate a relational claim compared with a reference food. The reduced substance (for example, total fat, sugar, etc.) should be at least 25 percent less per RACC than the amount in an appropriate reference food. Here are some foods you think are healthy that you should actually be avoiding.

5 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


Reference foods apply to these terms too. If more than half of a light product’s calories are from fat, the fat should be reduced by at least half per RACC. If fewer than half its calories come from fat, the food can be called light if the calories per RACC are reduced by one third. A lightly salted food should have 50 percent less sodium than a reference food. Sometimes foods that meet low requirements can also be labeled as light.

6 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


Labels not only brag about a food’s low levels of bad stuff but also boast about a food’s high levels of good stuff. High (or “rich in”) means that the food has 20 percent or more of the RDV (recommended daily value) for that nutrient per reference serving. Here are some nutrients that even nutritionists don’t get enough of.

7 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock
good source

Good source

A food with this label should have 10 to 19 percent of the RDV of a particular nutrient (which makes “good source” a little lower than “high”).

8 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


One step down in nutritional value from “good source” is “more,” “fortified,” “enriched,” “added,” “extra,” or “plus.” A food with 10 percent of the RDV of a nutrient can use one of these terms, but it applies only to vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and potassium. These food myths you’ve always believed are actually totally untrue.

9 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


This term refers to seafood or game-meat products with less than 10g total fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat, and 95 mg cholesterol per RACC.

10 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


Foods bearing this label meet the low standard for fat and saturated fat, have 480 mg or less of sodium, and are low in cholesterol. They should also have at least 10 percent of the RDV for such beneficial nutrients as vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber. Check out these foods that are even healthier than you thought.

11 / 11
Nicole fornabaio/rd.com, shutterstock


This is the most controversial word on food labels. The FDA solicited suggestions and considered comments about how to define natural for years but could not reach a consensus. The term still has no official definition. Here are some ways you’ve been reading food labels all wrong.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest