· Bright Ideas · Cracking The Food Label Code
Bright Ideas · Cracking The Food Label Code

Cracking The Food Label Code

When I am grocery shopping and considering buying something for the first time all I want to know is what’s in it! But after reading the label, I actually find it harder, rather than easier, to make up my mind! Food labels can be downright confusing (even misleading!) so to help us all better understand what’s in our food AND spend our grocery money wisely, Kaitlyn is doing some deciphering for us.

Kaitlyn writes……  My husband and I started the Whole 30 Program yesterday so I have been devouring food labels the past few days! We hit up Trader Joe’s on Monday to get stocked up on Whole 30-approved foods. I must have spent 15 minutes just picking out marinara sauce! I had to read the labels on at least 7 different brands before I found one that contained only whole ingredients and no added sugar.

I consider myself to be pretty well-informed when it comes to food and healthy choices and even I have a hard time deciphering labels sometimes! Manufacturers use popular buzz words like “reduced fat,” “heart healthy,” “sugar free,” and “high fiber” on packaging to entice customers to buy their products. But what do they really mean!?

Today I’m sharing important information that will make navigating the aisles of your grocery store a lot easier!

First, a few tips to remember:

  • When you are comparing two products, be sure you are comparing equal serving sizes, ideally by weight.
  • Don’t just read the label, read the ingredients list. Remember that the list of ingredients lists the components that are found in the greatest quantities to the least.
  • Understand what the claims on your labels really mean………..


Fat from healthy sources like lean meat, eggs,  coconut and olive oils, avocados etc. is good for you! Be aware that reduced fat or low-fat products are generally highly-processed with added sugar and artificial flavors to make them taste good.

  • Reduced Fat: Contains 25% less fat than the same regular product
  • Light: Contains up to 50% less fat than the same regular product.
  • Low-Fat: Contains less than 3 grams of fat per serving.
  • Fat-Free: Contains ½ a gram of fat per serving or less.
  • O Grams Trans Fat: Contains less than 0.5 gram of trans fats per serving.
  • Hydrogenated or Partially Hydrogenated: These terms indicate the presence of trans fats in a product.
  • Heart Healthy: Product is low in saturated fat, low in cholesterol, and low in sodium, and contains no trans fats. Contains only three grams or less of fat per serving and has at least 0.6 gram of soluble fiber.


Just like with low-fat items, products marked low calorie are not necessarily healthy and are usually filled with artificial sweeteners.

  • Calorie Free: Contains less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Low Calories: Contains less than 40 calories per serving.
  • Light: Contains a third fewer calories or 50 percent less fat than the regular product.


Eating less processed foods will automatically reduce your sodium intake. But you’ll want to look out for the terms below if you want to enjoy some of your favorite foods without the high amounts of sodium.

  • Low Sodium: Contains no more than 140 mg of sodium per serving
  • Very Low Sodium: Contains 35 mg or less sodium per serving.
  • Reduced Sodium: Contains 25% less sodium than the same regular product.
  • Light in Sodium: Contains half the sodium of the same regular product.
  • Sodium Free: Contains less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.


Instead of looking for processed foods with artificially supplemented fiber, go for foods that are naturally high in fiber. Think whole grains, fruits and veggies.

High Fiber: Contains at least 5 grams of dietary fiber per serving.


I think we can all agree that cutting down on our sugar intake is a good thing. But be wary of items marked sugar free or reduced sugar. Manufacturers often replace processed sugar and high fructose corn syrup with artificial sweeteners that can be detrimental to your health.

  • Sugar Free: Contains half a gram or less sugar per serving.
  • No Sugar Added: No sugar was added during processing but may still contain natural sugars from fruit or milk.
  • Less Sugar and Reduced Sugar: Contains 25% less sugar than the standard item
  • Made with Real Fruit: Contains some form of real fruit as a sweetener. This term is often used on items like candy, fruit snacks, juice blends etc. Don’t let the marketing fool you! Read the ingredient list and you’ll often find that the only real fruit in that product is a tiny bit of juice from concentrate.


It can be very difficult to find 100% whole grain products. Always read the labels on bread, pasta etc. to make sure you aren’t getting lots of nasty additives.

  • Whole Wheat or Whole Grain: Contains some form of whole wheat or whole grain. Keep in mind, something can be labeled this way even if it’s 99% bleached flour with a tiny bit of whole wheat. Some products labeled whole grain use caramel to mimic the brown color that results from the use of 100% whole grains. Other deceiving buzzwords to look for are stoneground, cracked wheat and multigrain.
  • 100% Whole Wheat or Whole Grain: Contains only whole wheat or whole grain. Keep an eye out for the 100% Whole Grain Stamp from the Whole Grains Council.
  • Gluten-Free: Contains no gluten. Remember that just because something is gluten-free that doesn’t mean it’s healthy!
  • Sprouted Grain: This is a term you’ll usually see on bread. Sprouted bread is a type of bread made from whole grains that have been allowed to sprout (germinate.) This is generally a healthy option, but check the ingredient list to make sure the bread doesn’t contain bleached flour.


There are so many confusing terms when it comes to animal products! Everyone tends to have different priorities when it comes to choosing good quality meat. Depending on your preferences you may want to look for meat that has more than one of the labels below.

  • Organic: In order to be certified organic, a product must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. For meat, that means it contains no antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Natural: Contains no artificial ingredients.
  • Cage-Free: Livestock and poultry that freely roamed an enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during the production cycle.
  • Free-Range: Livestock and poultry with unlimited access to the outdoors, food and fresh water during the production cycle. Free-range animals generally have a better environment than cage-free.
  • Grass-Fed: Animals received most of their nutrients from grass.
  • No Added Hormones: This is important only for beef and dairy products as federal regulations prohibit hormones in poultry and pork.
  • No Antibiotics: You’ll see this on red meat, poultry, and milk to indicate that the animals were raised without being routinely fed antibiotics to keep them healthy.
  • Lean: In a 3-ounce portion, there are less than 10 grams of total fat and fewer than 4.5 grams of saturated fat.
  • Extra Lean: Less than 5 grams of total fat per serving and few than 2 grams of saturated fat.


  • Organic: In order to be certified organic, a product must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. For produce, that means that means it was not grown with pesticides and the seeds were not genetically modified.

If you want to buy organic produce but have a hard time stomaching the high prices, check out your local farmers market! Sometimes small farms don’t have the time and means to become certified organic but still avoid using pesticides. At farmers markets you can talk directly to the farmers and find out just how they grow their produce.

You can also save a bit of cash by only buying The Dirty Dozen organic.

  • GMO-Free: The product was not grown from seeds that have been genetically modified. Look for products that have the Non-GMO Project seal on their packages. Keep in mind however, that just because something is non-GMO it doesn’t mean that product is organic.

Additional Terms

  • High, Rich In, or Excellent Source of: Contains 20% of the daily value for a certain nutrient per serving.
  • Good Source of: Contains 10% of the daily value of a certain nutrient per serving.
  • Helps Maintain: Manufacturers can’t say that a product “helps reduce the risk” of something without FDA approval. So instead they’ll say that the product “helps maintain” something.
  • 100% Organic: This is a term you’ll see on packaged foods. If a packaged food is 100% organic that means it only contains organic ingredients. If it just says organic, it contains at least 95% organic ingredients.
  • Natural: If you see this term on anything other than meat, it’s basically useless. The FDA doesn’t regulate this term so manufactures use it as a marketing ploy.
  • Low-Carb: This is another unregulated term that is used to drive sales of packaged items.

As confusing as they can be, food labels are still a valuable resource once you know how to crack the code! 🙂

What do you look for on a food label?

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    Hi, I’m Jillee!

    I believe we should all love the place we call home and the life we live there. Since 2011, I’ve been dedicated to making One Good Thing by Jillee a reliable and trustworthy resource for modern homemakers navigating the everyday challenges of running a household. Join me as I share homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make life easier so you can enjoy it more!

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