It’s Time to Understand What Those Nutrition Label Claims Actually Mean

A registered dietitian examines common nutrition labels to help the public understand the true meanings behind them.

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There are thousands of packaged foods in the supermarket, and picking out the best items for your health isn’t as simple as looking at the nutrition facts label. Many foods boast claims like “fat free,” “no antibiotics,” “organic” and the like. How the heck are you supposed to decipher the real meanings behind all of these things? We’ve got you covered with the claims that you might see the most often, what they mean and whether or not you should even care.

Who Regulates What

The skeptical consumer may think that most of the claims on the food label are just good marketing. But believe it or not, most are regulated by one of these three governing bodies:

US Food And Drug Administration (FDA): The FDA oversees food labels, bottled water, food additives, and infant formula.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): Contrary to its name, the USDA regulates accuracy in meat, poultry, and egg labeling. They also oversee the organic program.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC): This organization is responsible for food advertising, marketing, and endorsements.

Food Label Claims To Know

While it’s not necessary to memorize these definitions, it’s important to know that these terms are regulated. Here are a few food label claims that you probably see often:

No antibiotics or raised without antibiotics: These terms are only used on red meat, poultry, and egg packages. Meat producers must provide proof that the animal was raised without the administration of antibiotics.

Organic: You may see three different variations of this term:

  • 100-percent Organic: All ingredients are free from pesticides (excluding salt and water).
  • Organic: Product contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). You may also see the USDA organic seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: The product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

Good source: A food may include between 10 and 19 percent of the daily value of a certain nutrient, like vitamin D or iron.

Excellent source: If a food has at least 20 percent of the daily value of a certain nutrient, it can be labeled an excellent source. Certain nutrients, like omega-3s, do not have a daily value and cannot display this claim.

Low: You will only see this term in reference to calories, total fat, saturated fat, sugars or cholesterol. Here are some common definitions:

  • Low-fat: 3 grams or less per serving
  • Low-saturated fat: 1 gram or less per serving
  • Low-sodium: 140 milligrams or less per serving
  • Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving

Murky Food Label Claims

Although claims are regulated, some are not yet defined. Buyers should beware of the following:

Opinion Statements: Things like “world’s freshest bread” or “America’s most-loved cheese” are not substantiated claims. They are a matter of opinion and are derived from the manufacturer.

Natural: The FDA asked consumers to weigh in on this term, and a clear definition has not yet been determined. In the meantime, “natural” can mean that the food has nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives) in it.

Healthy: The FDA is reevaluating the definition of the word “healthy,” with no real consensus yet.

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