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Learning How to Decipher the Terms Used on Your Food Labels

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Learning How to Decipher the Terms Used on Your Food Labels

There are a slew of terms and descriptions for the foods we eat and if you look closely, you can often find at least five adjectives on any given food package. That’s the first tip. Look at the package. The food label can give you a better understanding of what you’re putting in your body. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has standard rules that define the terms food companies are permitted to use. But some terms are still vague and need deciphering.

Take an organic box of cookies. It is still a box of cookies that can be very high in calories and saturated fat! Organic does not automatically mean “healthy,” although research shows that many consumers believe this to be true. The term “organic” has a specific definition that can be helpful.

What Does Organic Really Mean?
On food labels, products that use the term "organic" must meet the following guidelines:

  • "100 percent organic" means the food must contain only organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).
  • "Organic" means the food must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).
  • "Made with organic ingredients" means the food must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the main display panel.

What is Natural?
The term “natural” is a gray one. Lard could be considered “natural” just as much as a peach or a stalk of broccoli. There is no formal definition for the term "natural" on food labels and the FDA and the USDA have not issued a standard use of this term. However, "natural" claims have become commonplace on many foods and beverages. The FDA follows a 1993 policy that states:

[FDA] has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.

More Terms
You might see the words “fat-free,” “sugar-free,” or “calorie-free” on food labels. These can be helpful when deciding what to put in your grocery cart if your goal is avoid foods containing that nutrient. For example, “calorie-free” means there are less than five calories per serving. Foods listed as “sugar-free” and “fat-free” both consist of less than 0.5 grams per serving.

How Low Can You Go?
Foods that claim “low fat,” “low sodium,” “low cholesterol ” or “ low calorie” have specific definitions:

  • Low Fat: 3 g (grams) or less per serving
  • Low Saturated Fat: 1 g or less per serving, with no more than 15% of the calories coming from saturated fat
  • Low Sodium: 140 mg (milligrams) or less per serving
  • Low Cholesterol: 20 mg or less and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving
  • Low Calorie: 40 calories or less per serving

There are many other terms and definitions that may be relevant to your specific health needs. A registered dietitian can help you navigate the terminology maze and tailor a meal plan that fits your lifestyle.


Article provided by Meridan Zerner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, registered and licensed dietician at Cooper Clinic.