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Decoding Food Labels

Decoding Food Labels

By Alexa Marks, RD, CDN

Have you ever walked the aisles of the grocery store and felt nothing but confusion? You’ve likely seen terms like ‘sell by,’ ‘best if used by,’ ‘low fat,’ ‘fat-free,' ‘zero trans-fat,' ‘good source of,' etc. These terms are intended to make understanding food labels even easier but sometimes, it just becomes more confusing.

I’m here to help!

Nutrition Labels:

In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated all food manufacturers implement important changes to the Nutrition Facts label for all packaged food products. These changes reflect updated scientific information and new nutrition research and are intended to make it easier for consumers to make better-informed food choices. While the requirements for when manufacturers had to implement these changes varied, most food packages in stores now include this updated label.

Nutrition labels are simple to understand if you know what you’re looking for. Check out this helpful guide from the American Heart Association for an in-depth review of each of the five sections of the Nutrition Facts label.

Now that you have a better handle on the label let’s start decoding!


Milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybean are the top eight allergens listed on food labels today (2022). It’s important to note that as of January 1, 2023, ‘sesame’ will also be added to this list. If a food product includes one of these eight allergens, the food label must declare it by naming the food source of a major food allergen on the label immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a ‘contains’ statement.

Packaging Dates:

20% of American food waste is a result of package confusion! It’s important to note that FDA only regulates expiration dates for infant formula. Here’s what you need to know about everything else:

  • ‘Sell by’: this is the last date a seller can display the product for sale. This is not a result of food safety but for inventory management.
  • ‘Use By’ or ‘Best if used by’: this is the date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality, flavor and/or freshness. While this is important for highly perishable foods, it doesn’t guarantee the food will spoil by this date (or even before!)
  • Any food that smells bad looks odd, or has visible signs of mold should be thrown out immediately.

More Labels:





25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than the original product

The original product may not be low-calorie, so cutting 25% may mean this is still a high-calorie food

Good source of

10-19% of the Daily Value (DV) of a particular nutrient per serving


High In (or excellent source of)

20% or more of the DV of a specified nutrient per serving



<0.5 gram/serving


Low Fat

<3 gram/serving


0 trans-fat

<0.5-gram fat/serving



The product has 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat than the original product.


Low Calorie

< 40 calories per serving


Calorie Free

< 5 calories per serving


High Fiber or Excellent Source of Fiber

Contains at least 20% (5 grams) of your daily fiber requirement

Fiber benefits: reduces constipation, lowers cholesterol levels, regulates blood sugar levels, aids in healthy weight

Good Source of Fiber

Contains 10-19% of the daily fiber requirement (2.5-4.9 grams)

Recommended 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories

Sodium Free

< 5 grams Na per serving


Very Low Sodium

< 35 grams Na per serving


Low Sodium

< 140 grams Na per serving


No Salt Added/Light in Sodium

50% less sodium is added during processing than normally added to the original food item

Caution: many products with less sodium, less salt, or light on the label may still have too much sodium

100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat

All grains are whole

The ONLY label means all the grains are whole.

Whole grain or whole wheat

At least 50% of the grains are whole.


Made with whole grains

An unspecified amount of whole grains

The majority of whole grains can be refined


Made with more than one type of grain


Interested in learning more? Check out some of our recent Blog posts, including Diet for Heart Health and Nutrition for Diabetes Management, for more tricks for staying healthy and eating well!