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Food Label Terms and What They Really Mean

By Jane Kirby, The American Dietetic Association

All the nutrients that a food contains are important; however, to achieve weight loss, the total fat and calories are the most important to track from nutrition information on a food label. Cholesterol and sodium (salt) don’t add calories, but eating too much sodium can contribute to water retention and therefore water weight. The calories from saturated fat are included in the calories from fat total.

This table lists some of the terms that are particularly important when you’re on a weight-loss plan.

What the Food Label Says What It Means
Fat-free Less than 1/2 (0.5) gram of fat in a serving.
Calorie-free Less than 5 calories per serving.
Lowfat 3 grams of fat (or less) per serving.
Lean (on meat labels) Less than 10 grams of fat per serving, with 4.5 grams or less
of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.
Extra lean (on meat labels) Less than 5 grams of fat per serving, with less than 2 grams of
saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
Less Contains 25 percent less of a nutrient or calories than another
food.
Reduced A nutritionally altered product that contains at least 25
percent fewer calories, sodium, or sugar than the regular one.
Lite (Light) Contains 1/3 fewer calories or no more than 1/2 the fat of the
higher-calorie, higher-fat version; or no more than 1/2 the sodium
of the higher-sodium version.
Cholesterol-free Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams (or less) of
saturated fat per serving.
Healthy The food must be low in fat and saturated fat and contain
limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium.
Percent fat free The food must be low in fat or fat free. Plus, it must reflect
the amount of fat present in a serving. In other words, if a food
contains 5 grams of fat in a serving, it can be labeled “95
percent fat free.”
Low-calorie Fewer than 40 calories per serving

Many dieters find that portion control is real tricky. Manufacturers certainly don’t help in this regard. Some containers look as though they should contain one serving, because that’s probably how most people consume them. However, consider that

  • A 16-ounce container of iced tea is 2 servings.

  • A 6 1/2- to 7-ounce can of tuna is 2 1/2 servings.

  • A 4-, 6-, or 8-ounce container of yogurt is considered 1 serving.

  • A 20-ounce bottle of soda is 2 servings.