Understanding Food Label Language and Claims

ImageOh food labels…before coming to college I was pretty aloof to their information…specifically what was considered a serving size for a product or how many servings were in one package. I am even embarrassed to admit that before studying nutrition I was under the impression that a pint of ice cream was one portion size….not four 1/2 cup servings! This is still a common question I get with many of my patients. Being aware of the claims on food labels and nutrition facts labels are not just important if we’re trying to shed a few pounds (or gain) but is also quite important for people with diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, among other chronic and acute conditions.

Reading food labels can help you become a better shopper. Below I’ve listed the government definitions for terms you’ll want to understand, especially in regards to calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, etc. It’s important to remember that these claims are based on a single serving of that particular food.


  • Low calorie– 40 calories or less per serving
  • Reduced calorie– at least 25% fewer calories per serving when compared to a similar food
  • Light or Lite– 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat per serving
  • Calorie free– less than five calories per serving

If more than half the calories are from fat, the fat content must be reduced by 50%


  • Fat free– less than 1/2 gram (.5 gram) of fat per serving
  • Low fat– 3 grams of fat or less per serving
  • Reduced fat– at least 25% less fat when compared to a similar food


  • Cholesterol free– less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving AND 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving
  • Low cholesterol– 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol per serving AND 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving


  • Sodium free– less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
  • Very low sodium– 35 milligrams or less sodium per serving
  • Low sodium– 75% less sodium than the amount in non-reduced sodium item (140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving)
  • Unsalted– food prepared without salt that normally is salted during processing

20130415_101123 (3)Other claims that you may see on a label often times may include:

  • High fiber– five or more grams of fiber per serving
  • “High in…” – provides 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving (ex: Vitamin C)
  • “Good source of…”- provides at least 10 to 19% of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving

Do any of these phrases ring a bell for some of your favorite food products? If you don’t already pay attention to these claims on food labels, now you’ll know exactly what this means 🙂 Happy eating and happy shopping!

2 thoughts on “Understanding Food Label Language and Claims

    • It’s definitely not very much 🙂 A lot of times I try to encourage people with dietary restrictions to take as much time savoring the ice cream so they can fully enjoy a smaller portion size. But when we compare 1/2 cup to what we might be used to putting in a bowl it definitely feels like a tease!

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