Decode Your Food Labels

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on February 08, 2021

If you’re confused by the nutrition claims slapped all over food packages, you’re not alone. Most people don’t know what to make of the many terms manufacturers use to describe and sell food. But healthy grocery shopping doesn’t require a special code or a degree in nutrition. Here’s a cheat sheet with the real meaning of eight common food phrases.

The label: Made with whole grains

What it means: Grains (like wheat, barley, and oats) have three parts: bran, endosperm, and germ. Sometimes manufacturers remove some of these parts during processing. But grains that keep all three are called “whole grain,” and they’re better for your heart, weight, and health.

 “Made with whole grains” doesn’t mean a food has only whole grains. It might have the processed kind, too. That’s why it’s important to choose bread, pasta, cereal, and tortillas that are labeled “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat.”

Keep in mind: Oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, and popcorn are always whole grain.

The label: All natural

What it means: A food can call itself “all natural” or “natural” if it doesn’t have added colors, flavors, or artificial substances, and it hasn't been processed very much.

Keep in mind: "Natural" doesn’t mean a food is healthy or organic. In fact, some experts say that government agencies, like the FDA, should have tougher standards for these terms -- or even ban them altogether. Check the ingredient list of every food you buy to see if it has added sugar, trans fats, or other ingredients you should keep to a minimum in your family’s diet.

The label: Made with real fruit or fruit juice

What it means: This label means very little. The FDA allows foods that have even a tiny bit of fruit or fruit juice concentrate to say they’re made with real fruit. Plus, the fruit in the ingredients doesn’t have to be the same as the flavor on the label. Raspberry-flavored fruit leather can be made with strawberries and no raspberries. 

Keep in mind: The best source of fruit for your kids is fresh, whole fruit, like apples, bananas, and grapes. It has healthy, filling fiber and all of a fruit’s original nutrients.

The label: Good source of protein, vitamin D, or another nutrient

What it means: A “good source” means that a single serving of a food has 10% to 19% of the amount of a nutrient, like protein or calcium, that the average person needs in a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. (Most kids need around 2,000 calories daily.)

Keep in mind: It’s useful to know if a food has nutrients like protein. But it’s hard to add up the amounts of all the essential ones for yourself -- or your kids. That’s why it’s smart to keep a variety of whole foods in your diet, like fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, and lean meats like chicken and fish. That’s the best way to guarantee you’re getting all you need.

The label: No added sugars

What it means: No sugar or sweeteners were added to a food or any of its ingredients. Sugar has many names, like honey, molasses, corn syrup, corn sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, brown sugar, cane sugar, corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, and glucose. However, “no added sugar” foods can include sugar alcohols, like sorbitol and xylitol, to make things taste sweet. These are very low in calories, but they can cause side effects like an upset stomach. 

Keep in mind: The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that added sugars be less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than age 2.

The label: Fat free

What it means: Food with this label can still have up to 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

Keep in mind: The type of fat you’re getting matters. Some fat, especially the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated kinds in fish, nuts, and avocados, is actually good for you. Saturated and trans fats are not.

What’s more, fat-free foods often have more salt or sugar than versions that have fat. Fat adds flavor to food, so sometimes food companies add in other ingredients, like salt, to make up for that loss of flavor.

The label: Organic

What it means: Processed food that’s labeled “organic” has to be free of artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors. Its ingredients have to be organic, too. For example, the wheat used to make organic crackers can’t have additives and has to be grown and processed without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Keep in mind: Research shows that non-organic food is just as nutritious as the organic kind. But eating more produce and whole grains for their nutritional goodness, despite how they are grown, is important, as is eating more locally-grown foods. 

The label: Only X calories a serving

What it means: That a single serving has the number of calories advertised (it’s usually 100). But even a small bag, box, or bottle may have more than one serving. So if you’re eating a bag of small chips that says “only 100 calories a serving,” but that bag contains two servings, you may actually end up eating 200 calories.

Keep in mind: By 2020, the FDA will require all food companies to list serving sizes that are more like what most people really eat. For example, the label would give the nutrition facts for a full cup of ice cream, instead of half a cup.

Show Sources


Nielsen: "Fifty-nine percent of Consumers Around the World Indicate Difficulty Understanding Nutritional Labels."

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Whole Grains Make a Difference," "Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020," "Organic 101."

Minnesota Department of Health: "Nutrition Facts," "Whole Grains."

Harvard Medical School: "5 Tips for Decoding Food Labels," "Organic Food No More Nutritious Than Conventionally Grown Food."

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Added Sugar in the Diet," "Ask the Expert: Healthy Fats."

U.S Food and Drug Administration: "What is the Meaning of 'Natural' on the Label of Food?" "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21/ Food Labeling," "Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide," "Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label."

U.S. Right to Know: "What Does 'Natural' Really Mean?"

Catherine Shanahan, MD, director of the Los Angeles Lakers PRO Nutrition Program and author of Deep Nutrition.

Joslin Diabetes Center: "What Are Sugar Alcohols?"

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "The Basics of the Nutrition Facts Label."

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