OBJECTIVE: To investigate consumers' understanding of terms commonly used to provide guidance about frequency and quantity of food consumption. METHODS: A survey of 405 shoppers explored how frequently consumers thought food labeled with the terms "eat often," "eat moderately," "eat occasionally," "a sometimes food," and "an extra food" should be eaten. In a separate phase, 30 grocery buyers responded to open-ended questions about their interpretation of these terms. RESULTS: Responses indicated significant differences in meaning between the terms. However, the specific interpretation of each term varied considerably across respondents. The qualitative research found the terms to be highly subjective, and there was a high degree of uncertainty about the meaning of the term "an extra food" in particular. CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS: Food frequency and descriptive terms currently used do not provide meaningful or consistent nutritional guidance. There is a need for simple, unambiguous terminology.