What’s Behind Those Food Labels?

Organic LabelHeading to the grocery store these days can be a confusing event. Besides the low-fat, sugar-free and fat-free products, now you have to decipher 100% organic from all natural, non-GMO, hormone-free—the list goes on. It is a lot to take in and can be overwhelming, especially if you are trying to get your shopping done quickly with kids or in a crowded store.

The labels on the front of a product often only tell part of the story—it is just as important to read the information on the back. A product labeled as being fat-free may actually have more calories and artificial sweeteners to make up for that lack of fat, and therefore, you may be better off with the regular or light version. Organic ice cream—although made from safer, organic ingredients—is still ice cream made from sugar, milk and cream, which we should eat in moderation.

Americans are learning more every day about the importance of a whole food, well-balanced diet and avoiding, as possible, highly processed foods. Understanding these label claims and knowing the ingredients in your food is a great place to start. Focus on finding the food labels that mean the most to you and your family, and then check out the nutritional information and ingredient list on the back. What are you sacrificing, if anything, to meet the claim on the front of the product? Are the ingredients used familiar and necessary to make this product, or do you see a lot of additional ingredients that you have never heard of? Many experts say to look for products with five ingredients or less. Although not always the case, many more then that are often unnecessary.

Intimidated? Don’t be. Start by looking at your most common grocery store purchases, and take a closer look at the product label information. Use the cheat sheet below to get you started, and in no time, making the healthiest decision will be a no brainer!

Common Food Labels Decoded:

Light: When referring to calories, the product has at least a third, but could be as much as fifty percent, less then the regular product. When referring to fat, fifty percent. Less calories and fat overall can be a good thing for your health, however often “light” products will make up for missing ingredients by adding others such as sugars and sodium.

Fat Free: This product has less then 0.5 grams of fat per serving. Reducing fat intake can be a healthy step, however, you don’t want to eliminate fat entirely. Again, if something if removed, something is replaced with things such as sugar and sodium. Many times, fat free is not as satisfying and can be overeaten quickly. I believe you are better off eating the regular or light version of the product in moderation.

No Trans Fat: Product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that raise LDL cholesterol levels (the bad kind), lower HDL levels (the good kind) and increase the risk of heart disease. Avoid trans fats by limiting highly-processed foods such as cookies and doughnuts that are calorie hogs with no nutritional value.

Low Sodium: This product has 140 milligrams or less per serving. We average 3,000 to 5,000 milligrams of salt daily when we really need 2,300 milligrams or less.  Try to choose foods that have less milligrams of sodium then calories and avoid processed foods since they are loaded with sodium.

Heart Healthy: This product is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, with no trans fats. There is also three grams or less of fat per serving and at least 0.6 gram of soluble fiber. Gives you a quick idea of the overall health of the product. A product with this label may help steer you in the right direction, but don’t forget to shop the best heart-healthy foods—often label-free in the produce department.

Sugar Free: This product contains less than 0.5 gram of sugar per serving. Watching sugar intake is important, so sugar-free products can be enticing, especially for diabetics. But remember, take something out, get something in return. In this case, usually extra calories as well as plenty of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols that when consumed too much, may act as a laxative.

Low Carb: There is actually no standard guideline here, but more of a manufacturer-determined label. Reducing carbohydrates has been a popular diet trend, so this label claims to identify those products with potentially lower “net” carbohydrates.  This appears to be more a marketing label then health label. Look at the product for all nutritional content to ensure missing carbohydrates are not replaced with extra sugars, artificial sweeteners, fat and calories. It may not be much different than similar products on the market and worth the often extra expense.

Gluten Free: This product is free of gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. Gluten-free diets are often used by those with sensitive digestion issues or wheat allergies. Worth considering this product if you suffer from one of the issues, but remember, products that are not naturally gluten free are probably not worth the expense or extra calories.

Hormone-Free, rBGH-Free, rBST-Free and No Hormones Added: These labels state that the cows were not dosed with rBGH, rBST or other hormones. Hormones are often used to increase milk production and speed growth in beef production. Many of the hormones used are suspected as causing a risk for cancer. Look for organic or hormone-free options if possible.

Organic: This product is grown and processed according to federal guidelines that regulate soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. 100% Organic = made entirely from organic ingredients; Organic = at least 95 percent organic; Made with Organic Ingredients = at least 70 percent organic. Although no research has proven that organic is truly healthier, these products are made without substances that are controversial and often unnecessary. Read up on foods that may be better to purchase organic. Organic products tend to cost more, and not all items need to be organic such as bananas and sweet potatoes.

100% Natural: Ensures that no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or synthetic ingredients have been used. Artificial ingredients are developing a bad reputation, so products without them are a safer bet, in my opinion. Even with all natural ingredients, there still may be lots of sugar and fat. Be sure to read up on the nutritional value of the product before considering it a healthy option.

No Antibiotics: Reassures that no antibiotics were used in production, usually of red meat, poultry, or milk. Studies are still looking at whether antibiotics given to animals to keep them healthy pose any health risk to humans. Although the research is still pending, it may be worth the extra cash for these options.

Grass Fed: States that animals, including cows and lambs, were raised on a diet of 100 percent grass and plants, and were not grain or grain products. Studies suggest that meat from grass-fed animals may provide more health benefits than meat from grain- and corn-fed animals. There appears to be less fat and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, grass-fed cows have less risk of exposure to the mad cow disease infectious agent. More expensive, but may be a good option. One thing to note is that grass-fed and organic are not interchangeable. May be tougher to find, but look for options that are are both.

Non-GMO Project Verified: This product has passed rigorous standards for Genetically Modified Organism avoidance (being completely GMO free is currently scientifically impossible to test). It is estimated that over 70 percent of processed foods contain GMOs and there is still debate on their safety. Currently, there is no regulation stating that products must be labeled as containing GMOs, but this label is offered through an independent group. Until more research is done or new laws passed, this product may be a wise choice.


Review the nutritional information and ingredient list and consider the following:

  • Will this product meet my nutritional needs and health standards?
  • What does this product lose or gain (if anything) to meet the claim on the front?
  • Are there a lot of ingredients that seem unnecessary to make this product (often more than five ingredients)?
  • Have I heard of most of these ingredients?
  • Is this product free of ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and sweeteners?

Information above was compiled through various sources:


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