Decoding Food Label Buzzwords


Presented as information to help consumers make more healthful choices, food manufacturers actually go to great lengths to utilize media buzz and catchphrases in drawing our attention to their products.  These terms are usually the first things we notice on a package and can actually distract us from making the most healthy choices because they don’t always convey the most truthful information, and, by design, they convince us to look no further to find out what’s really in the product.  Understanding the following terms is an essential first step to being a savvy consumer and label reader.   

“All Natural”  This term is very misleading because it is used to make a product sound as if no artificial ingredients are used.  However, the only current legal regulation of the term “natural” on food products is for meat packaging, when it is used to identify meat as “minimally processed” (whatever that means!).  Basically, this means manufacturers can put it on any product other than meat, regardless of the ingredients or their sources.  Check the ingredients list.  If there are dyes, preservatives, or words you can’t pronounce and/or define, it most likely contains artificial/chemical ingredients.

“Organic”  The term “organic” is simply defined as “involving the use of fertilizers or pesticides that are strictly of animal or vegetable origin” or “raised or conducted without the use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals” (American Heritage Dictionary).  While consuming organic ingredients is healthier (less toxic) than the alternative, equating “organic” food with “healthy” food could be an exercise in poor judgment.  For example, if a product is loaded with organic cane syrup, the “organic” doesn’t cancel out the harm done by consuming the excessive sugars it contains.  With this in mind, you should also understand that there are different definitions for ‘organic’ when it comes to food labels.  According to the USDA webpage regarding Organic Labeling and Marketing Information, it breaks down like this:

“100% organic” means that the product must contain only organically produced ingredients and processing aids (with the exclusion of water and salt). 

If the label simply states “Organic” then the product must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and processing aids. 

“Made with organic ingredients” products are only required to contain 70% or more organic ingredients. 

“Low-fat” or “Fat-Free”  With all of the hype and bad press regarding fat and “trans fat,” the food industry has gone crazy with stamping the words “no fat,” “fat free,” and “low-fat” on just about everything.  Often these terms are used on foods that never contained fat to begin with, just to make them sound healthier (a lot of fake-fruit snacks and candies are labeled this way) or foods that contain excess sugar (packaged desserts, cookies, cakes, etc. are the usual suspects here) or synthetic ingredients to simulate the texture of fat.  Of note, nonfat plain yogurt and milk are an exception, usually just having had the milkfat skimmed off, but it’s always wise to check the label.  Fat-free cottage cheese and cream cheese tend to have emulsifiers or other odd ingredients, so my advice is to stick with low-fat versions for family members over 2 years old, and remember that babies 12-24 months of age need whole milk/full-fat dairy products for brain development. 

Another trap associated with these buzzwords is that people tend to think that “fat-free” or “low-fat” products are healthier than other foods, which is not necessarily true.  Usually processed foods called “low-fat” have less fat calories but more calories overall because of the sugar or other (usually artificial) ingredients used to compensate for the reduction in fat.  Studies have also shown that people eat more of a product when it is labeled “fat-free” or “low-fat.”  If you are trying to regulate your calorie intake, this is an almost surefire way to sabotage your efforts.  You are better off to eat healthy fats in moderation – they provide nutritional benefits and give you a satisfied, full-tummy feeling with smaller amounts of food- a better way to ward off excess pounds for older kids and adults. 

“Reduced Sodium” or “Low-Sodium”  While buying prepared foods with the lowest sodium content is best, these terms don’t necessarily flag the best choices.  These labels only require a product to have less sodium than the original version of that brand.  If the brand you buy has an astronomical amount of sodium to begin with, then choosing the lower-sodium version could still put you at risk for including way too much in your diet.  Avoid products that contain more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. 

“Sugar Free”  Many times “sugar free” means that the sugar has been replaced by a sugar substitute such as Splenda (sucralose)*, saccharin, or aspartame (previously known as NutraSweet and often blended with other artificial sweeteners such as acesulfame potassium to produce an overall taste more like sugar.)  While all forms of sugar should be used in moderation, it is my opinion that simple, plain old “sugar” is preferable to any synthetically created or processed sugar substitute. 

*Splenda claims that their product is ‘made from sugar’ – and yet most products that contain it say they are “sugar-free”… so, in my book, it’s counted as a sugar substitute along with these others.

“0 Grams Trans Fat”  Though it would seem this means “no” trans fats, that is simply not the case.  The FDA allows this label to be put on foods as long as there is less than 0.5 g trans fat per serving.  The best way to know you are not eating foods containing trans fats is to check the ingredients list.  If the product contains partially hydrogenated oils; hydrogenated vegetable oils; coconut, palm, or other tropical oils; shortening; or animal fat/lard (yes, they do add these things to some foods), it contains trans fats.  Avoid these products, especially if these ingredients are within the first 5 ingredients listed.

“Low-carb” or “net carbs”  Popular for dieters, neither of these terms is regulated by the FDA, so there is no standard meaning associated with them for food labels.  Regardless, more important than the amount of total carbs consumed is the type of carbs.  Complex carbohydrates -found in legumes (dried peas, lentils, and beans); potatoes; corn; whole grain bread products, cereal, pasta; and brown rice- are necessary for supplying energy to the brain and nervous system as well as the rest of the body.  Naturally occurring simple carbs that contain vitamins and minerals include fruits, milk and milk products, vegetables, and honey (a small amount of vitamins/minerals).  The simple carbohydrates that are troublesome, and should be avoided, come from highly processed/refined foods (like white flour and white flour products, including breads, cereals, and pasta; parboiled/white rice; refined sugar and syrups.  If most of the carbohydrates your family consumes come from whole grains, legumes, unprocessed fruits, and/or dairy products, you shouldn’t worry too much about carbohydrates.

“Made with Whole Grain” or “Multigrain”  According to the USDA, the only label that means a product is made with 100% whole grains is one that states “100% Whole Grain.” Products with labels stating “Made with Whole Grain,” or claiming a specific number of grams of whole grain per serving (popular on breakfast cereals) are most likely trying to trick you into believing there are more whole grains than there actually are.  “Multigrain” simply means there are multiple types of grains, but that is not a guarantee that any of the grains included are whole grains.  Again, look at the ingredients list if you’re not sure.  In general, if the words “whole wheat,” “rolled oats,” “whole corn,” or “wheat bran” are listed as the one of the first ingredients, the product is whole grain.  Words like “enriched” or “fortified” or anything to do with coloring (caramel color, for example) are tip-offs that the product contains minimal, if any, whole grains.  Another clue is the fiber content (listed in the Nutritional Information box).  If a product is high in dietary fiber, it most likely contains more whole grains than not. 

Contains “Antioxidants”  The best source of antioxidants is fruits and vegetables in their whole state.  Any packaged food claiming to contain antioxidants likely contains trace amounts of foods that contained beneficial amounts of antioxidants before being processed.

“Made with Real Fruit” and Fruit “Flavored” Drinks  Beware of tricky wording on beverage packages and other products containing “fruit.”  The phrase “Made With” only means there is some (even a very tiny) amount of real fruit in a product, and this term on a label will usually be in much smaller text than the words “Real Fruit.”  Check the ingredients list – commonly, products labeled this way have a miniscule amount of actual fruit and are made mostly from high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors and/or flavors.  Juices and flavored beverages are especially tricky with their labeling.  The FDA lists a complex set of guidelines for the way in which manufacturers must label these in regard to actual juice content.  Simply put, if the label doesn’t say “100% juice,” it most likely contains very little juice at all.