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Decoding Food Labels

Decoding Food Labels

Credit: AP


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Posted on January 4, 2010 at 7:00 AM

Updated Sunday, Jan 3 at 8:15 PM

 Many people make New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier. However, it’s tougher than ever to know what you’re really eating.

Just last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently sent a 158 page letter to the FDA showing the need to reform food labels.

In it CSPI showed how the current labeling system is confusing consumers. Then they show how easy label makeovers could help make us all smarter shoppers and eaters.

Many of the major food manufacturers have begun to develop their own nutritional labels. General Mills, Kellogg and Kraft rolled out their Smart Choice program in 2008.

However, Consumer Reports recently wrote about the confusion those labels have caused and criticized the system because it gave checks to the majority of sugary cereals. It's important for consumers to know that these standards were developed by the manufacturers themselves.

As a result of that report the FDA did send letters to food manufacturers saying it will crackdown on inaccurate food labeling. I'm curious what you think. Are labels confusing? How would you like them to change?

 Below you’ll find definitions for three of the most popular food labels—what they mean and what they don’t cover.


For a food to be labeled organic and carry an organic label that food must meet certain guidelines.

The USDA says all products labeled “100 percent organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients and processing aids. Products labeled “organic” must be made with 95 percent organic ingredients.

Products that say “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Companies can be fined $10,000 for mislabeling products as organic.

All Natural

The FDA does not regulate the term “all natural”. That means any food carrying this label can mean a variety of things or nothing at all.

Zero Trans fat

According to the FDA a food with 0.4 grams of trans fat can be listed as having zero trans fats. However, some groups argue products that contain this label should also be low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

More helpful resources

Here is a good guide on how to read current food labels. This is a guide you can print out and take to the store with you.

Here is a great guide to help your children eat healthier at home, at school and at restaurants.

You can find helpful information for raw fruits, vegetables and fish here. You can print out these sheets as well and decide which fruits and vegetables have the least amount of sugars and which are highest in fiber.

The FDA has created a guide to help you better understand terms like “light” and “good source”. You can find that guide here.

There is also a good explanation of what foods must do to meet the “whole grain” definitions.