Label Reading Series: Crack the Code on Nutrient Claims


Do you question what’s in your food, and if you can trust the food label?  Are you getting tricked or the truth? Read on to find out what these food label claims really mean…

When a label says…

“Natural”- By Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition/regulation, this means nothing artificial or synthetic  (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.

What it does not mean- “Natural” does not address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, or manufacturing methods. Therefore, a natural product is not necessarily organic.

“Organic”- The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) requires products labeled “organic” to be produced without using conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or bioengineering. For example, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones and are fed organic feed, while organic crops must be grown in soil that is free from usda-organic-sealprohibited chemicals for at least three years.

Requirements set forth by the NOP:

  • Products labeled “100% organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients.
  • Products labeled “organic” must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients.
  • Products labeled “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.

What it does not mean- Organic does not mean healthy in regards to nutritional content. You can find a multitude of “organic” products that are loaded with saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar! For further label reading guidance on healthy choices, check out  Get the “Nutrition” Facts


When (and how) to buy Natural:

  • Peanut butter- Natural peanut butter will not contain “hydrogenated oils” or trans fat, which is the type of fat we want to completely avoid due to it’s negative cardiovascular/cholesterol effects! Natural peanut butter will separate and you’ll notice the oil on top. Stir it up good and enjoy!
  • Meats- to state it simply, choose fresh meats! Processed meats (which have are high in sodium and have other preservatives such as sodium nitrate) should be limited.
  • Other foods- a good rule of thumb is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store first to pick up most of your foods including fresh produce, fresh meats, and fresh dairy/eggs which will not contain any added preservatives. When shopping within the aisles, look at the ingredients labels…. compare labels and try to choose the foods with the least amount of ingredients. Minimize foods that contain ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce.

When to buy Organic:

Because organic foods often cost more, it may not be feasible (nor is it necessary) to buy organic everything!

Here are the produce (“the dirty dozen”) with highest contamination of  pesticides. Try to buy these organic when possible:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Grapes (Imported)
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes

Produce that you can buy conventional due to no or low pesticide contamination:

  • Avocados
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Papayas
  • Kiwi
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe (domestic)
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet potatoes

Other foods to consider buying organic:

  • Milk- to prevent potential exposure to recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) , choose rBGH-free or organic milk. Many conventional milks are rBGH-free but do not label it as such, so look it up online or call the company. The verdict is still out whether this hormone poses a health risk. But to play it safe, avoid it when possible.
  • Beef- organic beef will not contain antibiotics or growth hormones (as mentioned above). Again, the risk to humans isn’t clear, but it’s best to avoid it if possible.

What about GMOs?- Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants/organisms that have been genetically altered, and it is estimated that up to 80% of processed foods in the U.S. contain GMOs. The purpose of genetic engineering is to improve plant durability (for example, to withstand drought, and/or for disease resistance) or nutritional value. This allows farmers to grow better crops faster and at lower costs. While the  (FDA) has approved GMO foods to be safe, this topic remains controversial. One of the biggest concerns is that Roundup Ready corn is sprayed with toxic chemicals, and the World Health Organization has classified the main chemical used in Roundup as a “probable carcinogen.” Monsanto (the company that makes Roundup) is responsible for a lot of the world’s GM crops. Other concerns are the possibility of increased allergenicity of foods and antibiotic resistance in humans.

Will the label tell me if a food has GMOs?  gmo

  • China, Australia, and the European Union require GMO foods to be labeled. The United States, however, does not.
  • By choosing “organic” foods, you can generally avoid GMOs.
  • You can also look for foods with the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal- this indicates that the product has gone through non-GMO verification process.
  • A product labeled as non-GMO (such as “GMO-free”) means that the manufacturer volunteers to label it as such, but that claim isn’t legally or scientifically defensible (and not verified by a third party), so it may not be correct.
  • In summary, if you prefer to limit GMOs, your best bet is to purchase mostly fresh foods, unprocessed foods that bear the certified organic and/or Non-GMO Project Verified seals.

Nutrient Content Claims:

“Low fat”- indicates a product that has 3 grams of fat or less per serving.

“Fat free” or Trans-fat free”- the product has less than 0.5 grams of fat (or trans fat) per serving. This is a tricky one!

“Reduced fat”– the product has atleast 25% less fat than the regular version. This can be tricky because the original product could be very high in fat to begin with.

“Multigrain”- the product contains more than one type of grain, but it is not necessarily “whole” grain.

Collage_webres“Whole Grain”-  a product with the Whole Grain stamp means it has
has been certified by the Whole Grains Council.

  • If a product bears the 100% Stamp, then all its grain ingredients are whole grains. There is a minimum requirement of 16 grams – a full serving – of whole grain per labeled serving, for products using the 100% Stamp.
  • If a product bears the Basic Stamp, it contains at least 8 grams– a half serving – of whole grain, but may also contain some refined grain.

“Low Sodium”- indicates a product has 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.

“Reduced Sodium”- the product has atleast 25% less sodium than the regular version. This can be tricky because the original product could be very high in sodium to begin with (such as soy sauce, processed meat, or canned soups).

Pay attention to the food label claims, but don’t be tricked! Check out post Get the “Nutrition” Facts to dive deeper beyond the claims and investigate the nutrition facts panel. 

Label Reading Series: Ingredients List

With all of the concerns regarding what is in our food supply, read on to educate yourself on which Food Label Ingredients to watch out for.  It’s your right and responsibility to know!

The Basics: For starters, keep in mind that the ingredients contained in a product are listed in descending order by weight (from most to least). Along with the Nutrition Facts panel, the Ingredients label can help you determine the truth vs. a false or misleading claim. Here is what to pay attention to:

Let’s Look at Grains…

  • For grains such as bread, cereal, pasta, rice, etc. make sure the first ingredient listed is “whole” (as in whole wheat, whole grain oat, etc). These are good for you! It is recommended that at least half of the grains you eat, come from a whole grain source.
  • Limit foods with the words “refined” or “enriched” listed on the ingredients label. These are not whole grains. Don’t be tricked by “wheat bread” or some other brown colored breads which could simply be white breads that have been dyed with molasses. And keep in mind, even “multi-grain” products (which have more than 1 type of grain) could still be refined and not whole grain. Tricky, huh?! So to find out for sure, ALWAYS check the ingredients list!

“Tricky” Trans Fats: Because these fats have a “double negative” affect on your heart health by increasing “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and lowering “good” HDL cholesterol, they should be completely avoided. When looking at the ingredients label, avoid products with the word “hydrogenated” (such as “partially hydrogenated” or “fully hydrogenated”) oils listed in the ingredients. Because a food label can claim to have “0 grams of trans fat” as long as it has less than 0.5 grams per serving, take the extra effort to check the ingredients. To assure a food is completely free of trans fat, make sure you do not see the word “hydrogenated” listed.

 Added Sugars: Keep in mind that words ending in “ose” such as “sucrose”, “glucose”, and “fructose” (as in high fructose corn syrup) indicate added sugars and should be limited. Other ingredients that could indicate high fructose corn syrup are “corn sweetener,” “corn syrup,” or “corn syrup solids”.  Added sugars should be limited because they are “empty calories and can contribute to weight gain and increased triglycerides (fats in the bloodstream). Especially limit high fructose corn syrup as research suggests it could upset human metabolism, raising heart disease and Diabetes risk.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer commonly added to processed foods such as soups and processed meats. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe”,  they do require foods with added MSG to list it on the label. Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. These reactions include headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure/tightness, nausea, weakness, chest pain, rapid/fluttering heartbeats, and numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck, and other areas. It may be a good idea to limit foods containing MSG when possible.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): This is a preservative that the FDA classifies as “generally recognized as safe.” However, the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services has concluded that BHA “is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.” BHA is commonly found in cereals, breads, instant/processed potatoes, snack foods and gum. Consider minimizing intake and avoid it when possible!

 Artificial food dyes-  According the the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), 8 commonly used food dyes pose risks including hyperactivity in children, cancer (in animal studies), and allergic reactions. These include Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Orange B, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 3 (which was recognized by the FDA in 1990 to be a thyroid carcinogen in animals) and Red 40.  Manufacturers can also deceive consumers by using food dyes to simulate the presence of healthful, colorful fruits and vegetables (such as in jellies, fruit snacks, and fruit bars).  It’s a good idea to limit or avoid foods/beverages containing artificial food dyes. For further information, check out this link:

 Sodium Nitrate: this is a preservative that’s often found in processed meats, such as bacon, jerky, and luncheon meats, which could increase your heart disease risk by damaging your blood vessels. Nitrates may also increase your Diabetes risk. Avoid it as much as possible. When it comes to meats…fresh (and lean) is best!

And in summary… To limit unhealthy ingredients, a general rule of thumb is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store first to pick up most of your foods including fresh produce, fresh meats, and fresh dairy/eggs. These will generally not contain any added preservatives. When shopping within the aisles, compare the labels and try to choose the foods with the least amount of ingredients. Minimize foods that contain ingredients you don’t recognize and/or can’t pronounce.

Sooo… Take Action! Check out the labels of the products in your pantry. What will you keep? What will you stop buying??

Label Reading Series: Get the “Nutrition” Facts

Do you compare food labels but not really know what you are looking for? Here are the TOP things on the NUTRITION FACTS label to pay attention to:


  • Serving size- because the manufacturer chooses whatever serving size they want,  practice safe servings! The product’s “serving size” may actually be more than the standard Dietary guideline serving sizes. Also, keep in mind that the numbers listed for each nutrient is based on 1 serving per the label. Therefore, if you consume more than 1 serving, you will need to multiply to figure how much of those nutrients you are actually consuming. And don’t be tricked by products that seem like they are in single serving containers but may be labeled to have multiple servings within the container.
  • Calories- These are the units of energy in our foods/beverages and come from carbohydrates, protein, and fats. If you are watching your weight or want to lose weight, it’s a good idea to pay attention to calories within food/beverages.  A general calorie range to support weight loss is 1200-1500 calories/day for women, and 1500-1800 calories/day for men.  A dietitian can give you more specific recommendations.
  • Saturated fat- When comparing labels, try to keep saturated fat as low as possible. This type of fat can raise the risk of heart disease and high cholesterol .
  • Trans fat- Because this is the worst type of fat for us, make sure to choose foods with 0 grams of trans fat.
  • Sodium (Na)- For most healthy adults, daily intake of sodium should be limited to 2000-2300 mg/day (and even lower at 1500 mg/day for certain populations such as those with high blood pressure or heart disease). That may seem like a lot but sodium can add up quickly, especially in processed foods or added table salt. You’d also be surprised at how many foods/beverages (such as dairy/cheese, pork and other meats) contain sodium naturally.  A “low sodium” food has <140 mg of Na per serving– try to keep snacks within this guideline, and keep full meals under 600 mg of sodium.
  • Dietary Fiber- when it comes to grains such as cereals, pastas/rice, or breads, aim for choices with 3 grams of fiber or more per serving. Recommended fiber intake is 25-38 grams/day for most healthy adults.
  • Sugar- keep in mind that some foods (such as fruit and milk) naturally contain sugar. Otherwise, for most all other foods, keep sugar content  as low as possible to keep added sugars to a minimum. It is recommended that ADDED sugars do not exceed 10% of total calorie intake (i.e. thats 50 grams for a 2000 calorie diet, and 38 grams for a 1500 calorie diet).
  • Protein- since protein has a satiating effect, it’s a good idea to include protein at every meal and snack. Aim for about 15-25 grams of protein at meals, and atleast 7 grams of protein at snacks.
  • Focus on the grams (g) or mg for the nutrients listed. Don’t bother paying attention to % daily value for all the nutrients. Since these percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, it may not apply to you.

Next… check out the Ingredients List  to look further at what is in your food products!!