Food Label Confusion

Written by Morgan Hartline MS, RD, LMNT Extension Program Coordinator

When you’re buying a new food from the grocery store, what goes into your decision? Is it the design of the package? Is it the reputation of the product’s company toward its employees? Or, is your decision made by the Nutrition Facts Label? Odds are, you choose a product based on a combination of these and a host of many other reasons. My hope is, after reading this post, you feel more confident in your food purchases.

Package Claims

I want to start with the front of the package and make my way to the back. There are terms and statements that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined so that companies can use them to help advertise their product. For full details, visit the FDAs food labeling guide.

Regulated Claims

Be careful putting too much trust into these claims. While a food can be low fat or organic, it may contain high amounts of sodium and sugar. For example, many candies will advertise that they are fat free or an excellent source of Vitamin C. However, candy is still a high sugar, low fiber food product and overall not a healthy choice. 

  • Free, Low, and Reduced/Less
    • These claims can refer to calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugars.  
      • Example: Low fat cottage cheese
  • Health Claims:
    • Calcium/Vitamin D content and reduced risk of osteoporosis
    • Total fat content and cancer risk
    • Sodium content and hypertension risk
    • Fiber containing grains, fruits, or veggies and reduced risk of cancer or heart disease
    • Folate in the prevention of neural tube defects
    • Soy protein and reduced risk of heart disease
    • Plant sterols and reduced risk of heart disease.  
      • Example for whole grain bread: Low fat diets rich in fiber-containing grain products may reduce the risk of some types of cancer, a disease associated with many factors.
  • Organic
    • Producers must abide by the laws and regulations required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to produce organic foods.
  • Good, Excellent, and More or Added
    • These claims can refer to the percent daily values of vitamins and minerals in a food. Each claim refers to the percent Daily Value (DV) of a nutrient that food contains: Excellent (20%), Good (10-19%), More or Added (10% more than the referenced food)
      • Example for milk: Excellent source of calcium and vitamin D.

Unregulated Claims

While these claims are not illegal, they have no definition and so no meaning to you when looking at a package.

  • Natural
  • Lightly Sweetened
  • Strengthens or Supports your immune system
  • Made with real fruit

Nutrition Facts Label

In 2016, the Nutrition Facts Label was updated after over 20 years of the current design. To help consumers better understand what’s in their food, the FDA made updates on the design for serving size and calories. Vitamin D and Potassium replaced Vitamin C and Vitamin A as research has shown Americans are often lacking these nutrients while getting plenty of Vitamins A and C. Added sugars also joins the new label to give a clear picture of what the food carries naturally versus what the company adds.

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The Nutrition Facts Label can feel overwhelming. Most people don’t have time to review the entire label for every food they buy. I’ll give you some quick tips here to help make your shopping trip go faster.

  1. Use the 5/10/20 rule.  On the right-hand side of the label, there is a column of Daily Value percentages. 5% or under is a limited source, 10% is a good source, and 20% is an excellent source. Aim for 5% or under for saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. Aim for 10% or higher for vitamins, minerals and fiber.
  2. Compare like foods. For example, use the Nutrition Facts Label to compare yogurt to other yogurt, and bread to other bread.
  3. Reduce the amount of convenience foods you purchase. Packaged foods that can be opened and eaten right away, or simply heated in the microwave take the most time to review at the store. By sticking to plain yogurt, plain oatmeal, and plain frozen fruits and veggies for example, you diversify the types of foods you can cook, decrease the amount of time you spend in the store, and increase your family’s health.


Now you’re prepared to go to the store armed with information to help you shop fast and healthy. Don’t be taken-in by product claims; stick to the Nutrition Facts Label for fast, easy shopping.

What are your biggest shopping frustrations? Share them here!


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