By now we know that reading food labels is key to making healthier, more informed food choices. Unfortunately, those labels aren’t always super clear. Many can be misleading. There are plenty of health buzzwords that companies create and use solely for marketing purposes. Just because that box of cereal says “natural” does not make it healthy. It might not even be “natural” in the sense that you think of the term. The FDA doesn’t regulate many of these terms, which essentially means that companies can say whatever they want with little to no repercussions. Obviously, this makes it difficult for consumers to make the best choices for themselves when packaging can often be meaningless.
Thankfully, if you take the time to learn what these health buzzwords really mean, you can learn to decipher between foods that are only seemingly healthy and foods that are actually nutritious. Here are six health buzzwords and their true definitions.
According to the FDA, natural means “that 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.” This, however, does not mean that the product is free from added sugars, salts, or fats. It also doesn’t apply to food processing or manufacturing, including using pesticides. “If you see this label on a food, although the food may contain no artificial ingredients, examining the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel to evaluate the nutritional content of the food is still vital,” says Registered Dietitian Erin Palinsky-Wade.
The terms “low-fat” and “fat-free” are indicators that fat has been removed from the product. But again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is healthy or free of other unwanted ingredients. These terms also don’t have actual standards that companies need to meet in order to use them. “The issue is that unsaturated fats can be beneficial. So low-fat foods aren’t always more nutritious than their full-fat counterparts,” says Palinsky-Wade. When fat is removed, many times it’s replaced with added sugar, which increases the caloric value of the food with little added nutrition benefit.”
The FDA permits that foods that contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving can use this term. However, many processed foods with this label contain higher levels of other potentially harmful ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners. “When I see the label ‘sugar-free,’ my first question is ‘what has the manufacturer added in place of sugar?’” says Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN. Artificial sweeteners can still have adverse health effects. Like regular sugar, you should consume them in moderation.
This term refers to how we process a food, not the nutritional content of the food. Depending on what type of product you’re purchasing, organic can mean a number of things. According to the USDA, “USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.” The criteria are different for produce and animal products. “When it comes to produce and animal products, I tell my patients [that] if they can afford the cost of organic foods then go for it,” says Feller. “When it comes to packaged goods, I say it’s a personal choice. At the end of the day, organic candy is still candy.”
The term “superfood” sounds like it would be pretty loaded. But that’s not exactly the case. Although we usually use it to describe something nutrient dense, this term is unregulated and has a broad definition. Feller always looks at the purported health benefits when she sees “superfood” on the packaging. She checks to see if any of it sounds too good to be true. If you label a food as ‘super’ with health benefits, it needs to have scientific research to back up the claim. “In my book, all plants are superfoods. Consuming them has great health benefits due to their nutrient density,” says Feller.
“This is a voluntary label regulated by the FDA which ensures [that] the food meets the requirements of the agency’s gluten-free labeling rule,” says Palinski-Wade. “This label is extremely important to those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance to help them identify foods that are safe to eat.” The label gluten-free does not mean that the product or food is nutritionally superior. So, if you don’t have an allergy or intolerance, avoiding gluten does not carry additional health benefits.
Buying packaged foods can be confusing when there are so many health buzzwords that companies use to make their products sound appealing. When in doubt, check the ingredients labels. This will tell you what exactly you’re consuming. Plus, it will help you avoid misleading health buzzwords.