Grocery shopping for healthy foods can often be confusing, since many unhealthy foods are labeled with misleading terms and phrases that make them sound good for you. What many consumers don’t realize is that some food labels are deceptive, and that food companies are often able to stretch the truth to convince health-conscious individuals to buy their products. Knowing what these types of food labels really mean can help you arrive at healthier choices when grocery shopping for you and your family.
Here are the true meanings behind common food labels you may see in your favorite neighborhood supermarket.
These foods contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving — meaning not all these products are entirely fat-free. Plus, fat-free foods eliminate all fats, including healthy essential monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Food manufacturers then replace these fats with unhealthy fillers such as added sugar, salt, and thickening agents that not only work against your weight-loss efforts, but leave you hungry, less satisfied, and craving additional portions.
Consuming “sugar free” desserts and other items may seem like a safe way to indulge, but sugar-free items may still have up to 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. Plus, sugar-free desserts are often loaded with harmful preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and other additives to compensate for the sweet flavor and taste of sugar.
These foods are allowed to contain up to 0.2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. However, in addition to lacking “bad” LDL cholesterol, cholesterol-free foods also lack “good” HDL cholesterol. HDL cholesterol, such as that found in avocados and eggs, can lend to improved blood flow and circulation, and lower your risk for heart disease.
Natural and all-natural
“Natural” is a term used frequently among food companies due to its vague, yet appealing nature. But The FDA doesn’t define this term, so it’s open to interpretation. Food companies are allowed to use this label on any product that lacks food coloring, artificial flavors, and synthetic substances, but these products may still contain ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and added sodium. Read the ingredients to confirm the “natural” products you’re buying are indeed healthy, and do not contain harmful added sugars or artificial ingredients.
The USDA requires that foods labeled “organic” contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. The remaining 5 percent of ingredients must be listed as “allowed” on the USDA’s National List. For instance, crops treated with alcohols and chlorine can still be labeled and sold as “organic.”
When shopping organic, buy foods labeled “100 percent organic” whenever possible, since these foods consist purely of organic ingredients. “Organic” means at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic, and foods labeled “made with organic ingredients” contain 70 percent organic ingredients.
Buying foods “made with” real fruit or other healthy foods sounds like a good choice, but this label is virtually meaningless. The fruit may be concentrated or used in small amounts. It may not even be the same type of fruit pictured on the package. Some fruit snacks may use grape juice concentrate but add artificial flavors. Similarly, products “made with whole grains” may still have refined flour listed as the first ingredient, while the whole grains are used in minimal amounts.
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Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on June 28, 2017