Food Labels, Defined

How to Decipher Food & Nutrition Labels

The fronts of food packages are often cluttered with phrases meant to not only describe the product or nutrients in it but also influence your purchases. With bold, yet unclear phrases like “all-natural” and “heart-healthy” emphasized prominently, food packages can be confusing. But what do these claims actually mean—and should you be paying attention to them?

First, let’s look at three common types of claims – health claim, structure/function claim, and nutrient-content claim.

Health Claim

A health claim, as defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is any claim that describes the food and its relation to a reduced risk for a disease or health-related condition. Health claims must be reviewed by the FDA and approved before being printed on the food package. One example of an approved health claim is: “Diets containing foods that are a good source of potassium and that are low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.” Note that the phrase includes the overall diet, the nutrient (in this case, potassium and sodium), and its relationship to the health-related condition.

Structure/Function Claim

The structure/function claim describes the relationship between a nutrient and how it impacts a structure or function in the body. For example: “Calcium builds strong bones.” or “Fiber maintains regularity.” Despite the FDA requiring that the claims not be misleading, they are not pre-approved, resulting in confusing and often misleading information on food packages that is not always backed by sound science.

Nutrient-Content Claim

A third type of claim, the nutrient-content claim, is common on food packaging and is regulated by the FDA. Examples include phrases such as “fat free,” “low sodium,” or “reduced sugar.” For a food to be considered “fat free” it must have less than 0.5 grams of fat per labeled serving. “Low sodium” is defined as 140 milligrams of sodium or less per labeled serving while anything carrying the phrase “reduced” is defined as 25% lower per serving than the appropriate reference food. Details can be found on the FDA website.

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The Bottom Line

If you read claims on the front of food packages, be sure to look for those that make a connection between diet and a health outcome. You can mostly ignore the structure/function claims as those are not pre-approved and can be misleading. Nutrient-content claims can be trusted, but remember to look at the whole food and its ingredients. Consider a low-fat muffin for example. It may be low in fat, but it may also be high in sugar and refined grains.

Other common phrases you may see on food packaging are listed below. Knowing which ones are defined and which are used as marketing lingo by food manufacturers will help you make better decisions in the grocery aisle.

Healthy

For an individual food to carry the word “healthy” on the food label, it must meet criteria defined by the FDA. The food must be low in fat and saturated fat, have limited sodium and cholesterol, and contain at least 10% of the daily value of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber. Some argue that the term needs to be redefined as demonstrated in the recent controversy over the FDA warning to a popular granola bar brand, KIND. The FDA asked KIND to remove the term “healthy” from its packaging since the products were too high in fat to be considered healthy under the FDA definition. Some argue that since the fat comes from nuts and seeds, which are heart-healthy fats, then the definition is outdated and should be revisited to align with current research. Stay tuned on this subject.

Natural

To the surprise of many, the term “natural” isn’t regulated by the FDA. This results in companies interpreting the word in different ways, which can be confusing to consumers. According to the FDA website, “the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” The FDA has recently taken another look at defining the term and has called for public comment. For now, take this term with a grain of salt when comparing food products.

Organic

This is a highly regulated term, but not by the FDA. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) controls the use of this term. Organic means that the food was grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge. You may see the organic seal on food products, which means those products are at least 95% organic. If the product says “made with organic ingredients”, then it has at least 70% organic ingredients. Remember, the term “organic” is not synonymous with the term “healthy.” It’s still important to consider the food’s nutrient value even if it’s organic.

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