Food Labels, Decoded
What it means: Items that are “100 percent organic” are certified to have been produced using only methods thought to be good for the earth. “Organic” means the item contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
The health implications: Research has yet to show that organic foods are nutritionally superior, but they are typically made without potentially harmful pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or genetic engineering.
Keep in mind: Organic foods can cost up to 50 percent more than nonorganic products. If that cost is prohibitive to you, it’s better to eat healthful choices, like fruits and vegetables, that are conventionally grown, rather than skipping them.
Bottom line: Going organic never hurts, especially when it comes to avoiding pesticides, which are linked to several health issues. Produce most affected by pesticides includes peaches, apples, peppers, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, and pears.
Get more tips on how to read food labels.
What it means: These products don’t contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives and have no synthetic ingredients.
The health implications: As with organic foods, no research proves that natural products are better for you. Most food additives, while unsavory sounding, haven’t been shown to be bad for you.
Keep in mind: Just because something is “natural” does not mean it’s good for you. It can still have loads of sugar, fat, or calories. The soda 7Up, for instance, was once marketed as “100 percent natural.” (The label now says it has “100 percent natural flavors.”)
Bottom line: Check the ingredient list and the nutrition-facts panel to see what’s really in the item. A healthy choice will be relatively low in sugar and saturated fat, and you won’t need a chemistry degree to decipher the label.
What it means: The product contains less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving. “Low fat” means there are three grams or less of fat per serving. “Light” means the food has up to 50 percent less fat than its full-fat counterpart.
The health implications: Trimming fat from your diet can help lower overall calorie intake and spur weight loss. But don’t banish fat: Aim to get 25 to 35 percent of your total calories from fat―from sources like canola and olive oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish, like salmon.
Keep in mind: When removing fat, manufacturers often add extra sugar or starch to keep products palatable. Also, fat-free products may cause people to overeat, most likely because the products are less satisfying.
Bottom line: Skip the often tasteless fat-free stuff and instead choose low-fat foods, which are more filling. Or have a smaller amount of the full-fat version.
“0 Grams Trans Fat”
What it means: Contains less than 0.5 gram of trans fats per serving.
The health implications: Trans fats are associated with raising bad LDL cholesterol and lowering good HDL cholesterol, which increases a person's risk of developing heart disease and having a stroke.
Keep in mind: Trans fats are sometimes replaced with unhealthy saturated fats, like palm and coconut oils, which also aren't ideal. What's more, most foods with trans fats, such as cakes, cookies, and doughnuts, are high in calories and low in nutrients.
Bottom line: Avoid any product with "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" in the ingredient list; these terms indicate the presence of trans fats. But keep in mind that you should limit saturated fats, too.
What it means: These foods are low in saturated fat, low in cholesterol, and low in sodium, and they have no trans fats. They also contain only three grams or less of fat per serving and have at least 0.6 gram of soluble fiber.
The health implications: Eating heart-healthy foods doesn’t necessarily lower your risk of heart disease, though a diet higher in soluble fiber, which is found in oats, legumes, and some fruits, can reduce the risk of heart disease.
Keep in mind: Many of the heart-healthiest foods (usually found in the produce aisle) have no labels at all.
Bottom line: If you’re at risk for heart disease, these products can help you eat right, but don’t shut out other choices just because they don’t say “heart-healthy.”
What it means: Most often this means the item has a third fewer calories than its full-calorie equivalent. When it refers to sodium or fat, it means the item has up to 50 percent less.
The health implications: If you’re watching calories, these foods can help (as can foods labeled “low calorie,” meaning 40 or fewer calories per serving). A healthy weight is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
Keep in mind: Sugar levels in these foods may be high, so check the labels.
Bottom line: When eaten in moderation, light foods can be good dieting tools.
What it means: Contains 140 milligrams or less per serving.
The health implications: Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and stroke. Most adults should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, but Americans average 3,000 to 5,000 milligrams daily.
Keep in mind: Bread products and other grain-based foods, including some breakfast cereals, are hidden sources of sodium. One slice of some breads has two to three times the salt in a typical serving of potato chips.
Bottom line: Choose foods with fewer milligrams of sodium than calories. If a product contains 200 calories per serving, for instance, it should contain 200 milligrams or less of sodium.
What it means: There’s no standard definition for this term, so it can mean any number of things―or nothing at all.
The health implications: There’s no evidence that low-carb diets are more effective long-term than any other diets. Also, some carbs, like whole grains and produce, are healthier than others, and this term doesn’t distinguish between “good” and refined carbs.
Keep in mind: Manufacturers often replace those “missing carbs” with high-fat ingredients (such as nuts), sugar alcohols, or artificial sweeteners, so sometimes low-carb foods have just as many calories as foods that are not low-carb.
Bottom line: Disregard this label and pick foods that are healthy for what they do contain―vitamins, nutrients, and fresh ingredients.
What it means: You’ll see this on red meat, poultry, and milk to indicate that the animals were raised without being routinely fed antibiotics to keep them healthy.
The health implications: Antibiotics given to animals may create antibiotic resistance in the animals, but this isn’t thought to affect humans.
Keep in mind: Meat and poultry labeled as “organic” are also raised without antibiotics, so look for the “organic” term if you can’t find meat or poultry with this designation.
Bottom line: If you don’t mind paying a slightly higher price and are opposed to the overuse of antibiotics, this may be a good choice.
What it means: This label appears on beef and dairy products to signify that the animals were raised without hormones, which are commonly used to make animals gain weight faster or to increase milk production.
The health implications: Some experts say hormone-treated foods may increase the risk for cancer, but so far there is little long-term research to support these claims.
Keep in mind: If you can’t find this label, choose organic products, which also haven’t been subjected to hormones.
Bottom line: Look for this label if you want to err on the side of caution and cost is not a huge issue. (Foods labeled with “no hormones” cost more than their conventional counterparts.)
What it means: The product contains no gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains.
The health implications: Gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye, and their derivatives) can cause damage to the intestines of those with celiac disease, a digestive disorder. People who have wheat allergies may also seek gluten-free foods.
Keep in mind: While “gluten-free” means there’s no wheat, items listed as “wheat-free” aren’t necessarily gluten-free. Look on the ingredient list for rye, barley, malt, malt syrup, malt extract, and malt vinegar, all of which can contain gluten.
Bottom line: If you have celiac disease or wheat allergies, consider gluten-free products.
What it means: Contains less than 0.5 gram of sugar per serving.
The health implications: Many people who want to lose weight consume sugar-free products, which sometimes contain fewer calories. Diabetics monitor their sugar intake to regulate insulin production and keep blood sugar levels stable.
Keep in mind: “Sugar-free” doesn’t always mean low-calorie. Added starch can bump up the calorie count. Also, manufacturers often replace sugar with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, such as lactitol, sorbitol, and xylitol, which may act as laxatives.
Bottom line: As long as you use them in moderation, sugar-free products can be part of an overall healthy diet.