Woman reading food label on product in the supermarket

Do you feel overwhelmed and confused when you read food labels? Even products with low nutritional quality can seem healthy when you read all the labels put on the packaging. In many cases these claims are there to make you feel good about yourself assuring you that the food you eat is healthier than it really is. We’ll show you what the most used food labels really mean. So you can easier choose the right foods for you.

Typical examples are instant breakfast cereals for kids. Just look at this study that found that most products in this food category used health related claims on the packaging. Out of 128 products only 4-36%  of ready to go breakfast cereals did meet the criteria of the different nutrient profiles. Also Health-related on-pack information was not consistently related to the nutrient profiles according to this study conducted in Germany.

How to read food labels

“Natural’ or “All natural” does not contain anything artificial

All natural fruit juice packed with sugar

It must be healthier if its “all natural”? When you see the terms “natural” ,” 100% natural”, “all natural”, “made with natural” on a food product you presume that this product is healthier than the other products in this food group. Food marketers use this conviction many of us have and use the term natural extensively in a broad sense.

The “natural” labeling trend is one of the fastest growing food trends. But the fact is that the term “natural” isn’t regulated by law. The producers can define this term individually without any control at all. Neither the USA or Europe have developed definitions for these terms. The European legislation only defines the term natural in regards to natural flavoring(s) and natural mineral water. All other food categories are undefined. According to the FDA it has no objections to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.

In reality the “natural” label doesn’t mean what most consumers would expect: food produced without synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMO or artificial ingredients. Consumer Reports tested more than 80 different processed foods and found that many foods using the term “natural” contained GMO corn or soy. Also don’t forget that “natural” labeled food can still contain substantial amounts of added sugar, fat, salt and carbs. It’s better to check the ingredient list to decide what product to buy instead of relying on the “natural” labeling.

Verdict: Not a meaningful label.

“Gluten-free” is healthier

You can find the”Gluten-free” label on many products these days. Store are making place for whole sections of gluten-free food. The trend is projected to generate sales of more than $2 billion in 2020, up nearly $400 million from 2015.

People with celiac disease and severe wheat allergies have to avoid gluten in their diets. Although about 1% of the American population is affected by celiac disease, a genetic hereditary autoimmune condition, many believe to be gluten sensitive. This has contributed to the popularity of gluten-free food.  Most people often self diagnose non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity by the occurrence of symptoms following gluten ingestion.

A two-year prospective study  put those self diagnosed gluten sufferers to a test. They put 392 people on a gluten-free diet. The researchers defined gluten sensitivity in people whose symptoms disappeared after a 6 month strict gluten free diet and reappeared within a month after giving them gluten containing food. The result was that 86% did not experience any change of symptoms with a gluten-free diet. Which means that most of the subjects did not have any gluten sensitivity at all. That doesn’t stop the media and marketers though to sell the story of gluten-free foods as a healthier option.

It must be better if it doesn’t contain gluten

Gluten free food label

There’s a whole hype surrounding gluten-free foods where consumers presume that the food is healthier just because it is “free” of something. Gluten-free foods are often made of less healthy ingredients to substitute for the textures and tastes consumers are used to. For example many gluten-free foods contain less fiber than the regular versions of the same food.
Also gluten-free foods often contain naturally-derived food additives such as xanthan gum, guar gum and gum arabic. Gluten-free foods are often crumbly and dense and that’s why producers use gums to improve the texture of these foods. These gums produce much gas when fermented in the gut. These can also contribute to gas and flatulence in individuals with sensible bowls especially when the intake is high. So unless you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy these foods won’t contribute to your health any more than regular foods.

Verdict: Meaningful label but does not mean it’s a healthier choice than other foods in the same category. Check the ingredient list!

“No added sugar” is healthier and less caloric

“No sugar added” is a label many dieters like to see when losing weight. This label does not automatically mean that the food is low in calories or healthier. If a label says “no added sugar” it may not contain sugar, honey, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup and cane syrup. It can still contain all other ingredients including artificial sweeteners like aspartame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, sucralose or neotame. Many high processed “no sugar added” advertised foods contain some of these artificial sweeteners. They may be low in calories but are still not the better alternatives to sugar.

Don’t forget that some foods can be labeled “no sugar added” but they can still contain high amounts of naturally occurring sugars. For example that’s the case of fruit juice with “no sugar added”. It still contains high amounts of fruit sugars and isn’t any healthier than regular sugar.

When I want to buy myself something sweet I prefer to see a clean label on the box that can include added sugar. I eat this food then knowing that it is an indulgence and that I have to watch my portions.

Verdict: Meaningful label but does not mean that the food is less caloric, completely without sweetener or healthier. check the ingredient list!

“Free range” eggs come from chicken on the outdoors

Free range chicken outdoors and in commercial setting

Free range is a label that implies a lot to the consumer but is actually not what most of us expect it to be. Most consumers believe that free range eggs come from chicken on the outside, running freely around, pecking and finding their own food with no grains and concentrates in their diet. What it actually means is that the chickens had access to an outdoor area. The size or condition of the outdoor area is not defined, neither is the time for how long or how often chicken are on the outdoors. Chicken tend to stay near their food supply which means that even if you give them some access to the outdoors they are probably going to stay next to the feeding trays.

Next time you want to buy “free range” eggs with pictures of happy chicken on the egg cartoon, better look for the “pasture raised” label. This label is much more reliable and demands that laying hens spend a certain amount of time in the outdoors and defines minimum pasture size per animal.

Verdict: Not a meaningful label.

“Light” or “lite”  means there’s no fat

There a three defined things the light label can mean compared to similar products in a food category:

  • 50% less fat
  • 1/3 less calories
  • 50 % less salt

Strictly taken the” light” label can mean the product is healthier than a comparable food.

The trouble with this label is that it can also be used to describe properties or texture of food that doesn’t affect the nutrition of the product. For example, “light brown sugar”, “light olive oil” ,’light and fluffy’. These products don’t have less calories, fat or sodium the term light just describes the product. This way food producers can use this claim on a wide range of products. Consumers mistakenly believe that they bought a healthier product than the standard version of the food.

Verdict: Not a meaningful label. Check ingredient list!

“Made with real fruit” means there’s much fruit in the product

Made with real fruit food label

This label should be taken literary. It just says that something is “made with” fruit. There are no restriction on how much or little of that ingredient has to be in the product for the producer to be able to use this claim. If fruit amount is low it’s usually compensated with sugar and thickening agent. So you can end up with a product that’s “made with fruit” but is full of added sugar. The only way to know how much fruit is in a product is to check the ingredient list and the nutrition label. If fruit is topping the ingredient list it means probably much fruit is in that product. Also check how much added sugar is in the product and then compare and decide which of the product options is the best for you.

Verdict: Not a meaningful label. Check ingredient list!

“Low sugar” or “Lightly sweetened” is low in sugar

Lightly sweetend food label on cereals

These terms are not defined by any legislation. The “no added sugar” label has to meet certain criteria as explained before. But the “low sugar” or “lightly sweetened” claims are marketing terms used by producers without any restrictions. Simply disregard these labels when buying products because they don’t mean anything specific. These products can still have substantial amounts of sugar. Read the nutrition label to be sure what’s actually in these products. It’s very possible that apart from the label these products aren’t any different than similar standard products.

Verdict: Not a meaningful label.

“Excellent source of ” will meet all your nutritional needs

Exellent source of food label on eggs

If you choose a product that says it’s an “excellent source of”, “high in” or “rich in” e.g.  fiber, vitamins, minerals, calcium, vitamin D, proteins,… it must meet a defined criteria. According to FDA rules these products must contain 20% or more of the daily value per reference amounts customarily consumed (RACC – most often the serving size).  You have to be aware that these products won’t cover 100% of your daily needs for a certain nutrient. Of course it’s better to choose a product eg. high in fiber compared to one that’s not. Still be aware that you probably haven’t eaten all the fiber you need for the day.

Verdict: Meaningful label

“Zero trans fat” and “no trans fat” is the same

Zero trans fat vs no trans fat label

Although these claims seem to be the same only the “no trans fat” label guarantees that there’s really no trans fat in a product. “Zero trans fat” makes use of mathematics and allows for 0.5g trans fat per serving. Which isn’t much but can add up when you eat several servings.

Keep in mind that trans fats are the most processed and unhealthy fats. They raise your chances of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. You should avoid even small amounts of trans fats.

Verdict: Only the “no trans fat” label guarantees that there’s really no trans fat in a product.

“Made with whole grains” will give you lots of the healthy stuff

100% whole grain label

It’s the same situation as with the “made with real fruit” label. “Made with” is just a marketing claim. This claim is not regulated at all. These foods can have just a minor amount of whole grains in them. Since there are no strict rules for whole grain foods its best to check the ingredient list and look at the first few ingredients. Look for ingredients like these, with”whole” in their name:

  • whole wheat,
  • graham flour,
  • oatmeal,
  • whole oats,
  • brown rice,
  • whole-grain barley,
  • whole-wheat bulgur
  • whole rye
  • wheatberries

These are all whole grains. If they are topping the ingredient list it’s a good indicator that the food contains a high percentage of whole grains. The “100% wholegrain” label is also a good indicator for shopping since it guarantees that all grains used are whole grains and that there are at least 16g of whole grains in one serving size. Still, it is wise to check the label to see all the ingredients in a food, because even a 100% whole grain food doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy. It can still contain lots of sugar or hydrogenated fats.

Verdict: Not a meaningful label.

“No additives” means it’s a clean food product

No additives in food


The “No additives” claim is not regulated by law. That means no inspection for these claims is in place. When we see the “no additives” claim we presume that the producers haven’t added anything artificial or natural to the food.  None of this has to be true. Producers can freely interpret and use this term. Disregard this claim when shopping.

Verdict: Not a meaningful label.

“Low in” fat, calories and cholesterol… actually means something

These terms have a precise meaning defined by law:

  • Low in fat – 3 g or less fat per serving
  • Low in calories -40 kcal or less per serving
  • Low in cholesterol – must meat two criteria – 20 mg or less cholesterol and 2 g or less saturated fat per serving
  • Sugar free – less than 0.5 g sugars per serving
  • Low sugar– not defined

When you read food labels note that the exception here is the term”low in sugar”. This term is not defined and does not mean that the product has less sugar than other products.

With the “low in” labels you have to be careful about serving sizes. These claims all refer to one single serving size. First check the serving size the producer is using. Often it’s a very small serving size and when you eat a lot of that food you can still end up with a lot of fat, calories or cholesterol in your diet. The serving size of a box of cookies can be one cookie. If this one cookie has 40 kcal it can be advertised as “low in calories”. But if you eat e.g. 6 of those cookies or even more you have consumed 240 kcal. That’s not a small amount of calories especially if you want to loose weight or eat those cookies on top of your whole diet.

“Free” means there isn’t any in the product

The free label always makes people believe they are buying something healthier simply because it is “free” of something. First of all “free” doesn’t always mean a product doesn’t contain that one specific ingredient at all. It can still be present in small amounts. For example that’s the case with the “cholesterol free” label. The real danger here is in marketing. Because of the free claim consumers believe they are buying a healthier option and don’t check the rest of the product. If a product is free of something it doesn’t mean that it is automatically healthier. The only way to be sure is to study the whole label not only look at the product packaging.
Verdict: Meaningful label but still check the nutrition information on the label to find the best product for you.

Best strategy to find the best healthy foods

The best way you can protect yourself against shady food claims is to skip the front of the package and to read food labels. You simply need to incorporate this healthy habit into your shopping routine. Read the ingredient list, check the nutrition label and compare to other foods. Once you find products you can trust this process won’t take much time. You’ll only have to check from time to time if the producer has changed something in his production process and ingredient list.

Photo credit: By Siam Thanachai (Own work), pommegranate fruit bar by the impulsivebuy, eggs by jeepersmedia, cheerios by jeepersmedia, spongebob cereal by jeepersmedia, woman in supermarket by usda