Health food terminology explained

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food labelling regulations require that all food labels provide nutritional information to help consumers make informed food choices.

But what do they all mean? Low-calorie, low-fat and “light” foods and beverages fill our shelves but they can leave the consumer confused as to what’s best and are they actually good for us at all?? This article aims to clarify and explain the phrases and give you some real advice on the matter.

Listed ingredients

The ingredients should be listed on a label in descending order of weight. Looking at the first 2 or 3 ingredients will give you a good idea of what type of food it is and whether it is high in fat or sugar. The list must also tell us how much of an ingredient is contained within the food, if it is associated with that food product. For example, for ‘tomato soup’, the ingredients list must tell the consumer what percentage or amount of the soup is actually made from tomatoes.

Serving sizes

Manufacturers are quite adept at highlighting the ‘per serving’ size, in a way that catches the eye.  However, the serving size that manufacturers use is often unrealistically small.

I.e. Recommended serving size = half a carton. Realistic serving size = whole carton.

If looking for the macronutrient content of a food be careful to look at the amount shown as sometimes it’s per ‘serving size’ and sometimes it’s ‘per 100g.’ A serving may be half the product so make sure your read the small print.

Recommended serving sizes are often very different from the serving size consumed by people.

Fat Free

Less than 0.5 grams of fat per 100 grams and contains no added fat.

Calorie Free

Less than 5 calories for a given reference amount.

% Fat Free

Products that are labelled as __% fat free must contain 3 grams or less of total fat for a given reference amount.

Cholesterol Free

Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol for a given reference amount and 2 grams or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount.

Saturated Fat Free

Less than 0.5 grams saturated fat for a given reference amount, and no more than 0.5 grams of trans fatty acids.

Low Fat

By law a product can only say it is ‘low fat’ if it contains less than 3 g of fat per 100 g of the product. Other terms such as ‘lower still’ or ‘90% fat free’ could still be high in fat.

Low calorie

No more than 40 calories for a given reference amount (except sugar substitutes).


If a product is described as “light,” with no further explanation, consumers can be assured that:

For foods deriving more than 50 percent of calories from fat, the light product is reduced in fat by at least 50 percent; or

For foods deriving less than 50 percent of calories from fat, the light product is either reduced in calories by at least one third or reduced in fat by at least 50 percent; or

For foods with modified sodium content, the light product must be reduced in sodium by at least 50 percent.

Low cholesterol

20 milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount, just because its low in cholesterol doesn’t mean that its low in fat, it could actually be high in saturated fat

Low Saturated Fat

1 gram or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount and not more than 15% of calories from saturated fat

Hidden Trans Fats

As you probably know trans fats are the unhealthiest fats and yet they rarely appear on food labels. In some countries it is now law that trans fats are listed on packaging, however it is not the case in the UK yet.

A good way of knowing if a food contains trans fats is to read the ingredient list. If it includes the words ‘shortening’, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ or ‘hydrogenated vegetable oil’ the food probably contains trans fats and should be avoided.

Free from Alcohol

Means a product can contain no more than 0.05% alcohol.

Reduced Salt

The food should contain less than 0.5 g sodium per 100 g of product.

High in Polyunsaturates

At least 45% of its fatty acids must be polyunsaturated and less that 25% of its fat content can be saturated.


This means no added sugar or sweetener has been added to make it taste sweet. This does not necessarily mean that the food will not contain fruit and/or milk which have their own natural sugars.

No Added Sugar

By law, a food label must identify what process the product has undergone during its manufacture. ‘No added sugar’ means just that – no extra sugar was added to the product during manufacture to make it taste sweet. But like ‘unsweetened’ it doesn’t mean that the product doesn’t contain sugar or isn’t a high sugar product.

Styled Food

If a food is a ‘style’ i.e. Greek style yoghurt it means it’s actually not Greek yoghurt it’s just flavoured and textured to resemble it.

Juice Drink

This is not juice, it is water with lots of flavourings and concentrates added to make it resemble the real thing.

Flavoured Food

The law states that the name of the product must not be misleading. Whenever the name of the food contains the word ‘flavour’, the food does not have to contain any of that particular ingredient. So for example ‘Smoky Bacon Flavour Crisps’ do not have to contain any actual bacon, only bacon flavouring. However, a food labelled ‘Cheese and Onion Pasty’ must contain cheese and onion.


An organic product must consist of 95% organic ingredients and 5% may be made up of specific non organic foods.

Farm Fresh

This is a meaningless term with no legal definition and can mean whatever the manufacturer wants it to mean.

Beneficial for health

General claims about benefits to overall good health, such as ‘healthy’ or ‘good for you’ are only allowed if accompanied by an approved claim and must be backed up by an explanation of why the food is ‘healthy’. Food labels are not allowed to claim that food can treat, prevent or cure any disease or medical condition.

Here are some examples of ‘healthier’ option foods

Rich Tea biscuits; the words ‘reduced fat’ and ‘less fat’ or ‘less salt’ are used to attract us into thinking it is a healthy choice. What they are actually saying is that they are reduced or less than another or an original version of the same product. It may be a ‘healthier’ choice, but not necessarily a ‘healthy’ choice. They can still contain high levels of that ingredient or may contain high levels of other nutrients that we need to be careful of.

Sugar-frosted cereal may be a good source of vitamin D but sugar frosted cereal still contains moderately high levels of salt and an amazing 20% of our upper levels of sugar intake in one bowl.

Adding vitamins to a food does not turn an unhealthy food into a healthy one.

The pictures on food labels must also not mislead. For example, yoghurt that has only raspberry flavouring must not have a photo of a raspberry on the packaging. It can, however, have a drawing of a raspberry – a loophole that food manufacturers exploit to their advantage.

If you want my honest opinion I wouldn’t even bother with health foods and I would focus on single ingredient foods i.e. chicken, broccoli, rice, sweet potato. Sound boring? A meal can taste surprisingly different when you add tomatoes, red onion, garlic and the whole range of spices available at every supermarket. Eat clean and become your own experimental chef.

Matt Knight is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to