What's in Your Food? A Guide to Nutrition Labels

By Matt Longman | 07/07/2017

You’ve probably heard the expression “abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.” What you eat has a major impact on your health and the ability to stay fit and healthy. Some health experts even suggest that if you had to choose between eating right or exercising, a healthy diet will have a greater impact on the outcome. But with an explosion of products bearing “healthy” labels, it can be hard to know what it all means. Below are some helpful explanations of some common food labels, and what to look for when shopping:

Natural

You've probably bought food marked "natural" thinking you were making a healthy choice. According to The Washington Post, "natural" is the second most money-making label on the market, helping sell over $40 billion of food annually in the U.S.

Food labeled "natural," according to the USDA definition, does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives, and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals. But food companies aren't held to any verifiable standards before printing it on their packaging.

When it comes to food, don't count on a “natural” label leading you to reliably better health and eco-conscious choices. It's not much more than a marketing ploy. If you’re buying natural, look for more wording like “non-GMO,” “no antibiotics administered,” or “no hormones” to know whether there is additional value to the label.

All-Natural

The USDA does not define foods labeled "all natural" as any different than those labeled "natural." Foods with this labeling are probably not any different than "natural" foods, and may not be regulated as they are not defined by the USDA.

Organic

The food industry requires third-party certification for an item to be labeled “organic.” Foods labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients. The other 5% must be on the National List provided by the USDA.

According to the California Certified Organic Farmers, "the use of sewage sludge, bioengineering (GMOs), ionizing radiation, and most pesticides and fertilizers is prohibited from organic production." For animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy to be labeled organic, they must be sourced from non-cloned animals that are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.

Free Range/Cage Free

For a product to be labeled "free range" or "cage free," animals cannot be contained in any way and must be allowed to roam and forage freely over a large area of open land. This labeling is very minimally regulated and allows producers to keep animals closely confined, but without cages, and still use the label "cage free."

Grass Fed

A "grass fed" animal is one that is raised primarily on ranges rather than in a feedlot, which means that they can be contained and still show this label, if they can graze. According to studies done by Northwestern Health Sciences University, grass fed products are preferred because the animals were probably not contained and the products are healthier than grain fed products.

No Sugar Added

"No sugar added" products can't be sweetened with any "sugar containing ingredients," per the FDA. Sugar-containing ingredients covered under this standard include honey, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, and cane syrup. For example, some ice creams are labeled "no sugar added" because they have not been sweetened with sugar, but they are not sugar free because they contain lactose, a natural milk sugar.

Sugar Free

According to the FDA, products labeled "sugar free" can contain naturally occurring sugar and sugar alcohols, but not artificial sweeteners. The FDA guidelines require that a food must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving to be labeled as "sugar free." This includes naturally occurring forms of sugar and any ingredient that contains sugar. Technically, the food product does not have to be completely free of sugar, if it meets the per-serving requirement.

Fat-Free

"Fat-free" foods must have less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving. “Low fat” means a product contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving, and 30% or less of the total calories are from fat. Sometimes "fat-free" is also taste-free, so food makers tend to pour other ingredients -- especially sugar, flour, thickeners, and salt -- into the products, which can add calories.

Reduced Fat

Reduced fat, on the other hand, refers to a product's claim to contain at least 25% less fat than the original version. So the "reduced" is referring to the amount of fat that has been removed from the original product.

Take a package of reduced-fat muffins, for example. If the original fat content per muffin was 20 grams, and the fat has been reduced to 15 grams, the fat content has decreased by 25% and is therefore considered "reduced fat." However, 15 grams of fat is still five times higher than the 3 grams per serving that officially qualifies as low fat. So clearly reduced fat does not mean that the food is low fat.

Here are some tips to consider the next time you head to the grocery store:

Know your labels. Learn what each term means to better identify good labels, but also the bad ones. Identify what constitutes “just a lot of green noise.”

Ask questions. Many stores “who walk the talk” arm their employees with product and industry knowledge that can help consumers make purchasing decisions and give explanations.

Go mobile. There are many apps available to help consumers sort through and check labels in real-time while shopping to help make purchasing decisions.