food labels, decoded

it’s hard to know what all these food labels stand for – when it’s just marketing language -vs- when it is good or bad for you. Real Simple decodes 12 labels:


  • “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.
  • Research has yet to show that organic foods are nutritionally superior, but they are made without potentially harmful pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or genetic engineering.
  • Organic foods can cost up to 50 percent more than nonorganic products.
  • Going organic never hurts, especially when it comes to avoiding pesticides, which are linked to several health issues.


  • These products don’t contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives and have no synthetic ingredients.
  • 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.
  • Just because something is “natural” does not mean it’s good for you. It can still have loads of sugar, fat, or calories.
  • 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.


  • 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.
  • Trimming fat from your diet can help lower overall calorie intake and spur weight loss. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


  • Contains less than 0.5 gram of trans fats per serving.
  • 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.
  • Trans fats are sometimes replaced with unhealthy saturated fats, like palm and coconut oils, which also aren’t ideal.
  • 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


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Many of the heart-healthiest foods (usually found in the produce aisle) have no labels at all.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Sugar levels in these foods may be high, so check the labels.
  • When eaten in moderation, light foods can be good dieting tools.


  • Contains 140 milligrams or less per serving.
  • 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.
  • Bread products and other grain-based foods, including some breakfast cereals, are hidden sources of sodium.
  • Choose foods with fewer milligrams of sodium than calories.


  • There’s no standard definition for this term, so it can mean any number of things – or nothing at all.
  • Some carbs, like whole grains and produce, are healthier than others, and this term doesn’t distinguish between “good” and refined carbs.
  • 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.
  • Disregard this label and pick foods that are healthy for what they do contain – vitamins, nutrients, and fresh ingredients.


  • 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.
  • Antibiotics given to animals may create antibiotic resistance in the animals, but this isn’t thought to affect humans.
  • 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.
  • If you don’t mind paying a slightly higher price and are opposed to the overuse of antibiotics, this may be a good choice.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • If you can’t find this label, choose organic products, which also haven’t been subjected to hormones.
  • 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.)


  • The product contains no gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • If you have celiac disease or wheat allergies, consider gluten-free products.


  • Contains less than 0.5 gram of sugar per serving.
  • 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.
  • “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.
  • As long as you use them in moderation, sugar-free products can be part of an overall healthy diet.

read article from Real Simple: Food Labels, Decoded

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