Decoding “Healthy” Food Labels

Decoding “Healthy” Food Labels
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

You have finally decided to step into the wild side and start purchasing healthy foods. You get to the “healthy” aisle of your favorite super market and think, “Now what?” Food labels that say they are all natural, organic and all around good for you, might not be and taking that step into the world of “healthy foods” could be more difficult than you think.

Here are the top five terms you’ll see on the “healthy” packaging of food labels and what they really mean –

Sugar Free

According to the FDA, “sugar-free” products must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. So, some “sugar-free” products are not 100% sugar free, as they claim to be. While it is a great alternative to the sugar packed foods you’d normally purchase, always remember that sugar-free foods do not mean they are free of harmful amount of calories or carbs, either. The FDA states, “FDA has historically taken the position that consumers may associate claims regarding the absence of sugar with weight control and with foods that are low calorie or that have been altered to reduce calories significantly. Therefore, the definition for “sugar free” includes the requirement that any food that is not low or reduced in calorie disclose that fact. Without such information some consumers might think the food was offered for weight control.”


The term “organic foods” is defined as foods that are grown without any additives, pesticides or insecticides. You are more likely to benefit from “organic” foods than processed foods. This is because organic foods are free of chemicals that processed or non-organic foods contain. Many lovers of organic foods say that they taste better and fresher. However, keep an eye out for products that say “100 Percent Organic”. This ensures that the product is actually fully made of all organic ingredients. Note: Some organic foods are known to be more expensive than generic, processed foods. According to the FDA, “The term “organic” is not defined by law or regulations FDA enforces.” However, states, “consumers buying organic products, whether produced in the United States or imported, can be assured that the foods are produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation or bioengineering. Organic farmers are required to adhere to certain soil and water conservation methods and to rules about the humane treatment of animals… it is important to keep in mind that the term “organic” does not necessarily mean “healthier.” The USDA makes no claim that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Consumers will still need to read nutrition labels and make wise selections to maintain an overall healthy diet. Keep in mind that the words “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable. Only food labeled “organic” designate that the product meets the new USDA organic standards.”


Though it is not a law that the government mandate food companies to label their products are GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, many organic, natural companies have started to label their products as such. Stay away from most cereals, snack bars, snack boxes and cookies, suggested by the Non GMO Project. According to the Organic Trade Association, “The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs, and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from their table.” And according to, “the FDA says it will not allow labels like “GM-free,” “GMO-Free” or “biotech-free.” The agency says guaranteeing a product to be free of GM material is virtually impossible. Instead the labels will have to say the food was not produced through bioengineering. The FDA said it may take legal action against companies that violate these guidelines.”


The term “Natural” is not strictly regulated by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. This means that many companies who are not using 100% natural ingredients, can most certainly use that label. The trick to knowing a food product is “All Natural” is to look at the rest of the label. If there are words that you cannot pronounce on that food label, chances are it is not all natural. Another way to make sure that product is all natural, is to compare brands and look for total calories, fat, protein, carbs and fiber. More often than not, the products with higher calories, fat and carbs, are not as “all natural” as they claim. According to the FDA, “it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, 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.”


Gluten is a protein mostly found in wheat, rye and barley. It is present in processed foods that are made with grains or ingredients like it. Many people who are diagnosed with celiac disease have a serious gluten sensitivity and must eat foods that are completely free of gluten. While the option of gluten-free foods is great, the high calories and fat in the other options, are not. Removing gluten from certain food products does not guarantee that those foods are the best for you. According to the FDA, “Whether a food is manufactured to be free of gluten or by nature is free of gluten, it may bear a gluten-free labeling claim if it meets all FDA requirements for a gluten-free food. Foods/beverages like bottled spring water, fruits, vegetables, and eggs are naturally gluten free. However, because the “gluten free” claim isn’t required to be on a food package, it may not appear even if the food is, in fact, gluten-free.”

Source on GMOs:,

What are some of the things you do to make sure that you are eating or feeding your family with the best, all-natural foods? Or, is eating “healthy” too much of a hassle for you? Share your story in the comments!


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