It seems easy to find healthy foods at the grocery store. The aisles are filled with products labeled, “all natural,” “reduced fat,” and “organic.” But what do those labels really mean?
Often, they don’t mean much about how healthy a food might be. They are more of a marketing strategy than a source of information, said Temple Northup, a professor at the University of Houston who has researched the effects of food labeling on consumers. In Northup’s research, shoppers considered foods – even soda – healthier when they were marked with a seemingly nutritious buzzword.
Instead of becoming confused by a food’s packaging, take a look at this list of food-label buzzwords that might not mean what you think they mean. And, if you want to buy a healthy product, take a look at the ingredient list. Look for products with fewer ingredients that include only terms you understand, Northup said.
Whole-grain breads, pastas, and other products are better for us because we get all of the nutrients that naturally come from that grain. But “multigrain” doesn’t necessarily mean “whole-grain.”
“Multigrain” simply means there are many types of grains in the product, according to the Whole Grains Council, a group designed to promote education about and use of whole grains. Those grains might be whole-grains, but that’s not guaranteed.
One way to be sure your multigrain food contains whole grains is to check the ingredient list. If the first ingredient listed is a type of whole-grain, such as whole-wheat or whole-oats, you can be sure the majority of the grains in your food are whole, according to the council. Or choose a food marked as 100% whole-grain.
Foods labeled “reduced-fat” simply have less fat than similar versions of that food – but they might still have a lot of fat.
In order to be labeled “reduced-fat” or “less fat,” a product must have 25% less fat per a set amount than a comparable food. The specific amount is determined by the FDA. That means that an average cup of reduced-fat shredded provolone cheese can still have about 20 grams of fat, or almost one-third of your recommended daily value.
Foods marked “low-fat,” however, are required to have just three grams of fat or less per FDA-determined amount. So go for the “low-fat” or “fat-free” foods if you want to limit the amount of fat in your diet.
This label can have a range of meanings, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a product is fresh or healthy. The FDA hasn’t defined the term, but the organization said it can be used as long as the food doesn’t have added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
However, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, many foods that contain citric acid or high-fructose corn syrup are labeled “natural.” In some cases, the FDA has sent warning letters to the makers of those products, but the letters often go ignored, according to the center.
When it comes to meat, the United States Department of Agriculture has a set definition for natural chicken, beef, and other products. Those meats must not have any artificial ingredients or added color. They can also be only “minimally processed,” which the USDA determined means the end product isn’t significantly changed.
The label “organic” refers to the way the food is grown or raised, but organic foods can still be high in sugar, fat, or sodium. The FDA points out that the term “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean the food is safer.
There can be some variations among food certified organic by the USDA. A product is entirely organic if it is labeled “100% organic,” while a simple “organic” marker means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. And products that state they are “made with” organic foods are only required to have 70% of their ingredients certified organic.
While organic produce might have fewer of certain pesticides or fertilizers and organic meat has no antibiotics or growth hormones, the nutrients found in organic products are typically the same as the nutrients found in their non-organic versions.
5. Contains antioxidants
Antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, and some vitamins, help delay damage to your cells. They can be found in many fruits and vegetables or dietary supplements. However, just because a food is high in antioxidants, that does not automatically mean it is healthy. Though antioxidants can be part of a healthy diet, they won’t make up for fats and sugars found in unhealthy foods.
Dietary supplements are also allowed to advertise that antioxidants can help reduce the risk of cancer. However, the FDA requires those supplements to note that evidence supporting the link between antioxidants and a lower risk of cancer is limited.
6. A good source of calcium
To be labeled a good source of calcium, a food must provide between 10% and 19% of your recommended daily value per serving. That label is interchangeable with “contains calcium” or “provides calcium,” according to the FDA’s rules.
Foods that contain the most calcium – more than 20% of your recommended daily value per serving – can be labeled “high calcium,” “rich in calcium,” or “an excellent source of calcium.”