Understanding Food Labels

Understanding Food Labels

By  Elisha McFarland

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

Understanding food labels can be a daunting task. Some terms are just marketing hype, while others are terms that are sanctioned by regulators, the United States  Department of Agriculture (USDA)  or Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Food labels are managed in tandem by the USDA and the FDA. While the USDA handles meats, animal products, grains and produce, the FDA takes care of grocery items and many of the labels related to nutrition characteristics, like fat content, calories and vitamins.

Understanding your food labels is vital to making informed, healthy choices. So what do the terms on a food label actually mean?

Understanding Food Labels


In a short answer, “natural” doesn’t mean anything! The term “natural” has no FDA guideline behind it. The information copied directly from their site states the following:

“The FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. [1] So while the foods can’t include synthetic ingredients, they can be heavily processed, such as animals raised with antibiotics and growth hormones. High fructose corn syrup (HFSC, sometimes referred to as corn sugar) for example is a natural substance, but producing it from raw corn requires a number of processing steps”.

Despite the label, “natural” foods do not necessarily  occur in nature.


According to the fda.gov site, it means different things for different foods. So before you think fresh means something good, think again. According to Subpart F, Section 101.95 C, food manufacturers are not precluded from using the term fresh on their products even if they are using “approved” waxes or coatings, using post-harvest pesticides, applying mild chlorine or acid washes, or ionizing radiation. [2]


According to the USDA there are 3 categories for the term organic:

  • 100% organic:  Only foods that don’t contain any non-organic ingredients can be labelled as “100% organic”.
  • Organic:  Foods can be labelled simply as “organic” if they contain 95%+ organic ingredients, provided the other 5% does not include growth hormones.
  • Made with organic ingredients:  Foods that have at least 70% organically-produced ingredients can use the term “made with organic ingredients”. That’s right – up to 30% of the contents could be non-organic.

Click on link #3 (below) to read the USDA’s language on the department’s official  website. This is a great document to read, as there are also additional details and loopholes. For example, small farms that generate less than $5,000 annually from their organic offerings are exempt from certification requirements. They can use the term “organic” on their labels, but can’t use the USDA logo.

So for absolute certainty about your food, look for the categories named above AND look for the USDA official logo on the labelling as well.

“Made With…”

If you see this term on packages, it’s safe to assume that there is some misdirection going on with the labelling. If a label says “100% real fruit juice”, then its 100% percent juice (regardless of the process used to make it). But if it says “made with 100% fruit juice”, check the label to see what else may be included.

“Good Source Of…”, “Contains” and “Provides”

When foods claim to be a “good source” of a particular vitamin or nutrient, they must prove that they have at least 10 percent of the USDA’s recommended daily allowance. [4]

These terms may be used to indicate that the product contains a food or ingredient that meets the definition of “containing” or “providing” a level of nutrients, but may not be used to describe the entire product.

“High Source Of…”, “Rich In…” and “Excellent Source Of…”

When foods claim to be a “high source of” or “rich in” a particular vitamin or nutrient, they must prove that they have at least 20 percent of the USDA’s recommended daily allowance. [4]

“Low Fat”

“Low fat” is an FDA-regulated term that requires food bearing its label to have three or fewer grams of fat “per serving”.

Like “Good Source Of”, this  term may be used to indicate that the product contains a food or ingredient that meets the definition of “low fat”, but may not be used to describe the entire product.


A “light” label is regulated by the FDA and can refer to the level of fat, calories or sodium in a product. If referring to fat, the “light” food must have at least 50 percent less fat than the “original” version of the product.

If the original food began with fewer than 50 percent of its calories derived from fat, the “light” label can refer to a reduction of a third or more calories, or a 50 percent (or greater) reduction in sodium.

“Cholesterol Free”

To be labelled “Cholesterol free”, foods must have fewer than two milligrams of cholesterol per serving, as well as fewer than two grams of saturated fat per serving.


Many people mistakenly assume that multi-grain means that whole grains were used in the product. This term simply means that more than one type of grain was used to make the product. By definition, the term “multi-grain” does not indicate or exclude any methods of processing.


The USDA requires meat that is labelled as “lean” to have fewer than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams.

Of note, this regulation is “grandfathered” in, which means that meat products that have consistently been labelled as “lean” since before 1991 can retain the label, even if it doesn’t meet the current requirements specified above.

“Free Range”

For poultry, the term “free range” is enforced by the USDA and means that the animals were allowed access to the outside.  The USDA does not regulate the term “free range” for beef and other livestock.

USDA regulations on the term “free range” do not specify the quality or size of the outside range, nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside.  There have been proposals by the USDA  to regulate the labelling of products as “free range” in the U.S., however what currently constitutes raising an animal “free range” is entirely decided by the producer of that product. [5]

“Low Sodium”

Low sodium foods must have 140 or fewer milligrams of sodium per serving — that’s about 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance, per the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“Reduced Fat”

“Reduced fat” refers to a food that has less than half the fat content of its original version – whatever that content may be.


Additional Sources:

About the author:

Alisha McFarlandAfter sixteen years of struggling with MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity), Elisha recovered her health through alternative and natural healing methods. It was this experience that encouraged her to pursue an education in natural health, and she now has the following designations:  Doctor of Naturopathy, Master Herbalist, D.A. Homeopathy, Bachelor of Science in Holistic Nutrition, Certified Wholistic Rejuvenist  and  EFT-ADV.

Elisha is dedicated to helping others improve their quality of life through education opportunities she offers through her website and other projects. She has written over 160+ articles, as well as recipes and formulas for DIY projects. Her articles have appeared on (among others) GreenMedInfo, Natural News, Organic Consumers Association and Planet Thrive.

You can visit her website at  myhealthmaven.com


If you've ever found value in our articles, we'd greatly appreciate your support by purchasing Mindful Meditation Techniques for Kids - A Practical Guide for Adults to Empower Kids with the Gift of Inner Peace and Resilience for Life.

In the spirit of mindfulness, we encourage you to choose the paperback version. Delve into its pages away from screen glare and notifications, allowing yourself to fully immerse in the transformative practices within. The physical book enriches the learning process and serves as a tangible commitment to mindfulness, easily shared among family and friends.

Over the past few years, Wake Up World has faced significant online censorship, impacting our financial ability to stay online. Instead of soliciting donations, we're exploring win-win solutions with our readers to remain financially viable. Moving into book publishing, we hope to secure ongoing funds to continue our mission. With over 8,500 articles published in the past 13 years, we are committed to keeping our content free and accessible to everyone, without resorting to a paywall.