How to Read Food Labels

What do terms like “extra lean,” “reduced fat,” and “low sugar” really mean? Here’s some healthy perspective on what you’re actually putting in your grocery cart.

Photo by Mikey Burton

When it comes to food labels, any dietitian worth her salt will tell you to pay attention to them. But not all the words on those labels  are created equal. Certain terms are backed up by law; others sound official but could mean anything—or nothing. Use this guide to translate the shelf talk and shop healthier with less hassle.

“Extra Lean”

Meat, poultry, or seafood labeled “extra lean” must meet strict requirements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Every 100-gram serving (about 3.5 ounces) must have fewer than 5 grams of total fat, fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat, and fewer than 95 milligrams of  cholesterol. That amounts to a pretty small dent in your total daily fat allowance, which is about 55 grams if you eat 2,000 calories a day and get 25 percent of your calories from fat. (That intake is on the low end of the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Smart shopping tip: If you’re cutting back on fat, extra-lean products are a better choice than those labeled “lean,” which can contain up to twice as much total fat (10 grams) and saturated fat (4.5 grams) per serving, with the same maximum amount of cholesterol.

“Low Fat” or “Reduced Fat”

Foods labeled “low fat” are required by the FDA to deliver fewer than 3 grams of fat per serving. “Reduced fat” means the food must contain at least 25 percent less fat than the original form.

Smart shopping tip: Low or reduced fat isn’t always the no-brainer option. Sometimes there are nutritional tradeoffs: Reduced-fat peanut butter, for example, may contain more sodium and sugar to boost flavor. Compare the nutrition facts before you buy.

“Made With Real Fruit”

“Real fruit” doesn’t always mean whole fruit. It might also mean fruit extract or juice, which could contain fewer nutrients or more sugar than the whole fruit does. And there aren’t any rules for how much of it needs to be in a box of toaster pastries, cereal bars, or other food for the package to carry this claim.

Smart shopping tip: The only way to figure out the amount of whole fruit in a product is to examine the order of the ingredients, says Angela Ginn, R.D., a Baltimore-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Contents are listed in order of volume, “so don’t be impressed unless fruit—not fruit juice—is in the first three ingredients,” she says.

Learn the meanings of more common food labels.