Deciphering Food Labels: Here’s What “Low-Sodium”, “Sugar-Free”, “Free Range”, and “Organic” Really Mean

Most Americans pay attention to food labels when shopping for groceries. For those of us with specific diet needs (like low-sodium or sugar-free foods) or diet preferences (like natural or organic), we depend on manufacturers’ labeling to steer us in the right direction. As it turns out, food labels often mislead consumers.

How? Think of the buzzwords we see all over our supermarkets. Terms like “free range,” “sugar-free,” and “low sodium” pervade the shelves. But what do these labels really mean? Turns out, these terms don’t always mean what we think they do.

While some terms are defined and regulated by either the Department of Agriculture or Food and Drug Administration, many common food terms aren’t defined at all by a regulatory agency. And even if a term does have a specific definition, a package containing the term on its label may give a false impression; we tend to think foods advertised with healthy buzzwords are healthy. Sometimes, they’re not.

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As one example, findings from a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics show the difference between what shoppers bargain for and what they get. The study found that consumers prefer foods with labels claiming things like “low sodium,” “low-fat,” and “reduced sugar.” But, in reality, some of these foods aren’t significantly healthier than similar products not making the healthy claims. In fact, in some cases, the “healthy labeled” foods were actually less healthy than their non-labeled counterparts!

Before you plan your next grocery run, read through this list of buzzwords to learn what they mean, and what they don’t mean.

1. “Low Sodium” versus “Reduced Sodium”

When a product label claims a food to be low sodium, it is guaranteeing that no more than 140 mg of sodium are in each serving. A product with this food label is the right choice for anyone trying to keep salt intake at a minimum. Labels claiming reduced sodium don’t have a salt benchmark, per se. Instead, reduced sodium simply means the product has at least 25% less sodium than its full-sodium counterpart. The takeaway – reduced sodium could still pack a big salt punch.

2. “Sugar Free” versus “Unsweetened”

Products advertised as sugar free must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. This includes naturally occurring fruit and milk sugars. But this label doesn’t mean the product doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. Unsweetened products, on the other hand, have no sugars or artificial sweeteners added to the product. But these items may contain naturally occurring sugars.

3. “100% Whole Grain” versus “Made With Whole Grains”

If a label states that a food is 100% whole grain, the product should be made exclusively from whole grains. A quick way to make sure? Check out the ingredient list. A whole grain, like whole-wheat flour, should be listed as the first ingredient. If a label states a food is made with whole grains, this really doesn’t mean much. The product could contain only a small amount of whole grains, while the rest of the grains could be refined. Again, check out the ingredient list to see where whole grains weigh in.

4. “Pasture Raised” versus “Free Range”

We all want to think the animals providing food for us lived happy lives, right? Well, some folks go out of their way to buy products, like eggs and chicken, advertised as pasture raised and free range. If you find the term pasture raised alone on your egg carton, it doesn’t have any meaning. When it comes to free range, this term on egg cartons makes shoppers thing the hens get to move freely outdoors. But, again, the label has no meaning alone.

When shopping for eggs from happy chickens, look for both these terms in combination with the “American Humane Certified” seal or the “Certified Humane” seal. These designations indicate that the hens were outside every day, and had lots of space to roam about.

5. “Organic” versus “Natural”

These days, many shoppers keep their eyes out for organic products – spanning the range from produce to dairy to grains to fish. The term “organic” is strictly regulated; foods can only be labeled as organic when farmers and processors follow the federal standards aimed at promoting more sustainable food systems. To make the cut as organic, a food must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. This means that crops are grown with fewer pesticides, and no synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms are used. With meat products, organic means farm animals are given organic feed and not subjected to the routine use of drugs, like antibiotics. For organic processed foods, they can’t contain artificial ingredients unless they go through a stringent review process.

So what about natural foods? According to a 2015 Consumer Reports survey, 62% of consumers look for foods with a label claiming the product is natural. This same survey found that almost the same percentage of folks believed this term means no pesticides, no antibiotics, and is akin to the organic designation. But this isn’t true. The fact is there’s no real regulation of the use of this term. So, claiming a food is natural may be a good way to sell products, but it’s little more than a marketing ploy.

My suggestion – keep this information about what labels really mean handy on your next shopping trip. If you want to be on the safe side, work to cut down your purchase of all foods with labels. After all, most of the healthiest foods don’t have (or need) a label.

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