How to Decode Food Labels

Photo Credit

Don’t Be Fooled by Misleading Labels!

Print Friendly and PDF
No content available.

All natural! High-fiber! Multigrain! Only 2 grams of fat per serving! Contains real fruit! Do you know what food labels really mean? Here’s a handy guide to decoding food labels.

Food marketers have taken full advantage of Americans’ growing interest in the connection between good nutrition and good health. To make food seem healthy, they pile on words chosen for their emotional appeal.

But some of the most common food descriptors don’t carry any real meaning. Others falsely imply health benefits, or intentionally mislead consumers into believing that a product is a healthy (or healthier) choice. Here are a few of the most common:


Except for meat and poultry products, this popular term isn’t regulated. It just implies that the product and all of its ingredients at some point originated in nature.

Fat-free, sugar-free

Just because a product is genuinely fat-free or sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s lower in calories or healthier.

Good source of fiber

Unlike fiber-rich, whole, unprocessed grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes, many processed food products (including candy bars) contain added “functional fibers,” some of which are synthetic and others of which are extracted from foods. So far, there’s been no proof these added fibers offer the same health benefits as the fiber you get from eating whole, unprocessed, plant foods.

Contains; made with; made with real

So, a product contains real fruit or is made with whole grains or real butter. But how much of these does it contain? The manufacturer may have shaken a bit of whole-wheat flour over a vat of dough, or blessed the granola bar with a whisper of apple concentrate. Look for the ingredient list on the package. The ingredients in a food product must be listed in descending order of predominance by weight. Your product may contain twice as much sugar as whole grains, and the “real fruit” may not be from the bowl of berries and grapes on the package but from a dab of apple concentrate that appears way down on the ingredient list.


Unless the label on a flour-based product says “100% whole grain,” words such as “multigrain,” “stone-ground,” even “organic” (see below) probably mean that the product is made from all or mostly refined flours, which have had the nutritious germ and bran removed.

Contains no…

For example, many products now advertise themselves as containing no high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). But substituting cane sugar or some other caloric sweetener doesn’t make the product healthier. The calories from the added sweetener still add up, and may contribute to the health problems associated with overweight and obesity.


You often see ingredients listed as “per serving” on a label. But really, who eats only half a cup of ice cream or a teaspoon of salad dressing? Read the product’s nutrition label to see how much fat (or sugar, sodium, etc.) you’ll get in the amount of the product that you actually eat.

Lightly sweetened

“Reduced sugar,” “no added sugar,” and “sugar-free” have legal definitions, but “lightly sweetened” doesn’t. You’ll see it on boxed cereals and beverages, any of which may contain more sugar than you’d consider “light” sweetening.


On the other hand, the word “organic” has a strict, highly regulated meaning. The USDA Organic label indicates that the food has met strict standards of production and (if applicable) processing. The standards prohibit use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering. 

On the USDA’s organic consumer-information page, you can also learn the meanings of various other terms such as “free-range,” “cage-free” and “grass fed.”

A few takeaways

Choose real, unprocessed food
As long as you follow good food-safety practices, you won’t go wrong with fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs from the shell, unprocessed poultry and meats, wild-caught fish, whole grains and whole-grain flours, and dry beans and lentils.

Read before you buy/eat
Learn to read and understand nutrition labels and ingredient labels. Government regulations specify what must appear on these labels, although there’s huge room for improvement.

Choose grain-based products promoted as “100% whole grain”
Words such as “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “unbleached,” “enriched,” and “multigrain” often describe products made with refined flours. If the first ingredient listed on the label is 100% whole wheat, rye, corn, etc., this assures you that the product contains only whole grain(s).

Cook from scratch
With a little extra planning, making meals from scratch really doesn’t take that much more time. Think simple: Whole-grain toast, eggs, and fresh fruit makes breakfast. A bowl of salad greens topped with leftover chicken for lunch. A pan-grilled fish with steamed vegetables. Fresh fruit and a cube of favorite cheese for dessert.

Want goodies?
Make your own. Even if you’re using highly refined white flour and sugar, your homemade goodies will contain fewer or no artificial ingredients, and you’ll be able to avoid the plethora of synthetic ingredients, trans fats, and excess salt/sugars/fats found in most commercial snack and dessert products.

Do you have any nutrition tips? Lets us know in the comments below!

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

No content available.