Here’s what the labels on your food really mean

Experts weigh in on how to navigate grocery stores

ORLANDO, Fla. – Navigating the aisles of a grocery store can be overwhelming.

Whether you’re buying for your family, trying to eat all-natural food or trying to buy things that will help you lose weight, the options can seem endless.

Nowadays, every company is trying to appeal to shoppers by stamping its packaging with buzzwords and labels that will attract you to buying it.

So what do some of these words really mean?

Savorfull CEO and nutritionist Stacy Goldberg helped clue us in on some of those buzzwords.

All natural

The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t made an rules to establish a formal definition for the term “natural” but has made policies about the term in food labeling. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added (artificial colors, dyes, etc.).

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The FDA’s policy doesn’t include anything related to processing methods like pesticides or pasteurization.

“Natural” has nothing to do with nutritional benefits, either.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says foods labeled "natural" do not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed; however, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones and other similar chemicals.

“Just because it says all-natural, doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for your diet. My recommendation is that you still have to turn it over and read the nutrition facts and ingredients to see if it works for you," Goldberg said.


It’s important to remember, just because the word natural is being used, doesn’t mean the food is organic.

Foods labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and the other 5% must be approved on the national list provided by the USDA. Organic food cannot be produced with any antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, etc.

The following words were also shortlisted by Collins for 2015 and will be added to online version of the dictionary:clean eating (noun): following a diet that contains only natural foods, and is low in sugar, salt, and fat (iStock)

Goldberg says it’s all about certification. Producers of organic foods must submit an application, and an agency comes to monitor the farm and its productions.

The USDA says the application must include the type of operation, substance history for the past three years of operation, organic products to be grown, raised and produced, and their plan for practices and substance use.

The company must also keep records to keep its certification.

There are different types of certifications as well; 100% organic, made with organic ingredients, etc.

“Many of the certifications have nothing to do with nutrition of the food, but how it was prepared," Goldberg said.

And just because a company’s products don’t say organic, doesn’t mean they aren’t. “Different food companies don’t want to pay to get the organic certification," Goldberg said. In some cases, the company is just too small to pay that fee.

Lite or light/low-fat, reduced-fat, less fat

Usually when shoppers see the term “light,” they think the food product is healthier for you, but that’s not always the case.

“Many of the products they're labeling light or fat free are going to be higher in sugar. They take out the fat and add sugar," Goldberg said. “They’re also making them light because they have artificial sweeteners in them, which for many of my clients makes them hungrier and it’s not a healthier choice for your body.”

Frozen pies, pot pies, waffles, pizzas and even breaded fish sticks contain trans fat. Even if the label says it's low-fat, it still has trans fat. (SXC)

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Even if something has more fat and protein, it's going to make you fuller longer, which is a better benefit.

When something says "light," it really just means it has fewer calories than its normal brand.

When a food label uses the term "light" or "lite," it indicates that a food has one-third fewer calories or 50% less fat, or 50% less sodium than a comparable product. Something to watch out for is if the term light is referring to color of the food like “light” brown sugar.

A food must have less than 3 grams of fat per serving in order to be called “low-fat.” When it comes to “reduced fat” or “less fat,” the food must be 25% less fat compared with the original food product.


Unlike the real stuff, Egg Beaters and other packaged egg whites contain artificial ingredients such as "color" and maltodextrin, a sweetener also used in candy. Egg yolks aren't all that bad either. They're packed with protein and lutein, which keeps eyes healthy. (michael lorenzo/SXC)

These terms can apply to meat, eggs or dairy farming. For a product to be labeled "free range" or "cage-free" the animals cannot be contained in any way and must be allowed to roam and forage freely over a large area of open land.

Zero trans fats

Trans fats are considered the bad kind of fat. There are two types: naturally occurring and artificial trans fats. Naturally occurring trans fats are produced in the gut of some animals, and foods made from these animals may contain small amounts of these fats. Artificial trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.

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Food companies use trans fats to give foods their taste and texture. Many restaurants and fast-food chains use trans fats to deep-fry foods because oils with trans fats can be used many times in commercial fryers.

Shoppers can sidestep trans fats in packaged foods. Some chip and cookie companies promise to have zero grams of trans fats. Products are required by the FDA to list the amount of trans fat they contain on the nutrition label; less than a half-gram rounds down to zero and the packaging can boast its lack of trans fat.