The Ultimate Food-Label Glossary

A major aim of the latest label laws has been to standardize the terms used when making health claims. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common terms and how manufacturers are allowed to define them according to the Food and Drug Administration guidelines.


One serving contains only trace amounts of or no calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium or sugars. These amounts are so trivial, they barely count in your diet. Something labeled calorie-free, for example, contains fewer than five calories per serving. Fat-free means less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving; sugar-free means less than 0.5 gram of sugar per serving. The words “without,” “no” and “zero” mean the same things.

Good source

One serving contains 10 to 19% of the recommended daily intake of fat, carbohydrates, protein, cholesterol, sodium or potassium.


One serving contains 20% or more of the recommended daily intake of a particular nutrient.

Lean; extra lean

These terms are used to describe the fat content of meats, poultry, seafood and game. An item labeled lean contains less than 10 grams of total fat, less than 4 grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. Extra lean means less than 5 grams of total fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.

Light; lite

One serving contains one-third fewer calories or half the fat that you’d get in a regular version of the product. And the sodium content of this low-calorie, low-fat food has been reduced by 50%. You should be aware that the term light can also be used to describe physical properties, such as color and texture, as long as the label explains the usage. Examples include light brown sugar and light olive oil.


Food products carrying this claim are low in one or more specific elements, such as calories or fat, yet they’re high enough to figure prominently in your diet. Other terms that mean the same are “little,” “few” and “low source of.” The specific definitions are:

  • Low calorie — contains 40 calories or less per serving.
  • Low fat — contains three grams or less of total fat per serving.
  • Low saturated fat — contains one gram or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Low cholesterol — contains less than 20 milligrams per serving.
  • Low sodium — contains less than 140 milligrams per serving.
  • Very low sodium — contains less than 35 milligrams per serving.


One serving contains at least 10% more of the recommended daily intake of a particular nutrient than its regular counterpart.

% fat-free

This claim is a little difficult to explain. The easiest way is to give you an example: If a food contains 5 grams of fat in a 100-gram serving, it can be labeled “95% fat-free.” The term can be used only on foods that already fall into the category of low fat or fat-free.

Reduced; less

One serving contains 25% less of a nutrient than you’d find in a reference food (the regular product or an entirely different product that the food is being compared with). A food with the “reduced” claim has been nutritionally altered to meet this requirement. This claim may not be made on a product if its reference food already meets the requirement for the “low” claim. One labeled “less” may or may not have been altered. This second term may also be used when making a comparison claim, as in “Our pretzels have 25% less sodium than potato chips.”

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