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So, while the labels placed on foods should be helping us to make better choices, sometimes they offer contradictory statements that are open to interpretation.

I live in the Washington DC area where we have a number of grocery stores that feature health foods. Yes Organic Market, My Organic Market, the Tacoma Park-Silver Spring Coop, and of course Whole Foods all carry a number of whole foods and supplements to support health – which is not to say that every single thing that is sold in these stores is healthy. And it’s often in these stores where label reading is somewhat more complicated.



As consumers we sometimes are fooled into thinking that foods that sport labels saying they are “natural,” and “organic” are automatically healthy.  But actually, under Food and Drug Association (FDA) policy, food manufacturers can use the label “natural” when the product has no synthetic and artificial ingredients. The organic label requires that the product meet the standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Organic Program. Nothing in the FDA guidelines or the USDA’s standards test for the health supporting qualities of the product in question.



Defined by regulation, the Label “healthy” means that the product must meet certain criteria, which limits amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium that the product can contain. Additionally, the food must contain minimum amounts of vitamins, minerals or other beneficial nutrients.

So the next time your mouth starts watering when you see some kind of frozen confection that is “organic” and “all natural,” don’t assume you’re making a healthy choice. Remember to read past those claims that suck you in! Read the label and especially take note of the sugars and fats you might be taking in (in the name of virtuous eating)!

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The organic label may help you to choose one product over another – but there are at least 4 tiers involved in organic labeling.



Food manufacturers can use 100% Organic label if: the product contains 100% organically produced ingredients; any added water and salt are ingredients that cannot be identified as organic. If 100% organic, the label may include the USDA organic label, or an organic label from another certifying agent.

A food label may simply say “Organic.” To use this label, the product must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients (excluding added water and salt). Additionally, the product cannot contain sulfites; and may contain a maximum of 5% non-organically produced agricultural products. These products have to include an ingredient statement listing ingredients as organic and include the certifying agent, and can include the USDA organic seal, or a seal from the certifying agent.

Food manufacturers can claim that their products are “made with organic ingredients” if the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients. It cannot contain sulfites (except wine), and may contain up to 30% of nonorganic ingredients. These products cannot carry the USDA organic seal.

And finally, products can be labeled as containing “some organic ingredients” and identify the organic ingredients are “organic” in the ingredients statement. Again, water and salt cannot be included in organic materials and a producer may opt to label the percentage of organic ingredients which can be less than 70%. This product may also contain over 30% nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients.    

Information about Organic Standards is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at:

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Since 1994 the nutrition facts label has become standard fare on all packaged foods. It was mandated for most foods sold in the U.S. under provisions from the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which obliged food companies to label the content of all packaged foods. Remember that book, The End of Overeating? This is the book that inspired Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move program? It’s author, Dr. David Kessler, was the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the early 90’s, and was responsible for developing the nutrition labels that we’ve come t know and expect on the foods we eat.



The label outlines several important facts, first and foremost – serving size. This is the most likely aspect of the label that will confuse people. Many tend to jump right past the serving size and look only at the calories, or the sodium or the sugar included. As a society people in the U.S. tend to supersize everything. Compared to our grandparents, we eat our food off of bigger plates, and out of bigger packages; and we drink our drinks out of larger glasses. So what we’ve come to expect as a “normal” serving size for even breakfast cereal might likely count as two or two-and-a-half servings.

Calories are listed next. As long as we have the serving size estimated correctly calories are just what they are. When the portion size is confused – the calories consumed can be much greater. It’s also worth mentioning that most of the labels include the percentage of a nutrient available in the food based on the “daily value.”  And this daily value is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Most people in the U.S. have occupations that keep them sedentary for a good part of the day, so their caloric need might be well below 2,000 calories. Still, one can roughly gauge that if she gets 20% of her daily value of protein at breakfast – she’ll want to be looking for the remaining 80% of protein in other meal options.

The Nutrition Information Label will always list total fat, sodium, carbohydrates and protein. Other components such as calories, calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A vitamin C, calcium and iron are usually show, but may not show up on the label if they are not present.

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When you walk through the aisles of any supermarket you’ll see a lot of different packages carrying messages to tell you how wonderfully nutritious the food is inside of them. One of the most popular of these is the “sugar free” label. I am sure you’ve seen it on countless occasions – especially on foods you know are not all that great for you. So what do these labels actually mean?

First off – these kinds of labels are called nutrient content claims that either directly describe or imply how much nutrient content is in a food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates what these labels can or cannot say. And according to the rules there is a bit of wiggle room – so when something says it’s sugar free – what it actually means is that

It’s important to know that when something says “transfat free” it is not actually required to have 0 trans fats; rather, the amount of trans fats it contains is such a small percentage that the FDA deems it “free.” For the common adjectives that you will see on labels see how they are defined by the FDA below:

Free “Free” can also by indicated in other words such as: “Zero,”  “No,”/ “Without,” “Trivial,” “Source of,” “Negligible Source of,” “Dietarily Insignificant Source of.”Key to this labeling is that the food or meal does not have to be free of a substance (such as calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium) if it contains trivial amounts (usually .05 g per labeled serving). This may also come with a disclosure statement – required as part of the claim – with phrasing like: “See nutrition information for fat content” that exceed the prescribed levels). So:Calorie Free = Less than 5 calories labeled serving.

Fat free (total fat) = Less than 0.5 g per labeled serving.

Saturated fat-free = Less than 0.5g saturated fat/trans fatty acids per labeled serving.

Cholesterol free: = Less than 2 mg of cholesterol per labeled serving, and could include “trivial or no amount of Cholesterol.”

Sodium free: = Less than 5 mg of sodium per labeled serving – foods labeled “salt free” must meet criterion for “sodium free.”

Sugar free = Less than 0.5 g sugars per labeled serving.

Low Otherwise stated as “Low,” “Little,” “Few” (for Calories), “Contains a Small Amount of,” “Low Source of,” and refers to a meal or dish that contains varying amounts of calories or substances – see the definitions below:Low Calorie = meals that contain 120 calories or less per 100 g.Note: a “Light” or “Lite” meal or main meets definition for a “Low Calorie” or “Low Fat” meal – and the labeling will reflect which definition is met by the contents of the meal. And for dietary supplements, Calorie claims can only be made when the reference product is greater than 40 calories per serving.

Low Fat = Meals and main dishes that contain 3 g of fat or less per 100 g and not more than 30% of calories from fat.

Low Saturated Fat = Meals/main dishes should contain 1 g saturated fat or less per 100 g and less than 10% of calories from saturated fat.

Low Cholesterol = Meals/main dishes should have 20 mg or less cholesterol per 100 g.

Low Sodium = Meals and main dishes that have 40 mg or less sodium per 100g; and “Very Low Sodium” should have 35 mg or less sodium per 100g

Low Sugar = Not Defined. May not be used.

Reduced/ Less “Reduced,” “Less,” “Lower,” “Fewer” (for Calories), and “Modified” may be used to indicate Low or reduced. Definitions for meals and main dishes are same as for individual foods on a per 100 g basis.Reduced Calories = At least 25% fewer calories per 100 g.  Reference food may not be “Low Calorie”Uses term “Fewer” rather than “Less”

Reduced Fat = At least 25% less fat per 100g; Reference food may not be “Low Fat”

Reduced Saturated Fat = At least 25% less saturated fat per 100g; Reference food may not be “Low Saturated Fat”

Reduced Cholesterol = At least 25% less cholesterol 100g; Reference food may not be “Low Cholesterol”

Reduced Sodium = At least 25% less sodium 100g. Reference food may not be “Low Sodium”

Reduced Sugar = At least 25% less sugars per 100g. May not use this claim on dietary supplements of vitamins and minerals


So, based on these above definitions some popular nutrient claims mean something slightly different than you might think… Informed choices are the best choices. Enjoy!

A lot of foods have confusing labels pasted all over the front of them. Some food labels boast a certain food is low-calorie, heart healthy or a good source of fiber while others may brag that calcium is important to bone health. Excluding for a moment what’s listed on the back in terms of ingredients, nutrients etc., the front of many grocery store-bought packages boast nutrient content claims, health claims and structure/function (S/F) claims – what do these claims tell us you ask?

A nutrient content claim is some kind of labeling on a food product that describes either in a direct or implied manner how much nutrient content is in a food; a commonly seen example is the use of the term “low fat.”

In contrast, a health claim is a claim on the food or dietary supplement label that makes a direct or implied correlation between use of that food or supplement and a disease or health condition. Such labels could include symbols, or illustrations or recommendations from a third-party. So when you read a big banner on the front of a Cheerios box that says “you can lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks” you are perusing a health claim.

Structure/function (S/F) claims also appear – on foods and dietary supplements; they differ in that they point to the way that the food or supplement (or its ingredients) affects a particular function of the body without pointing to any particular disease. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “S/F claims must be truthful and not misleading and are not pre-reviewed or authorized by FDA. [21 U.S.C. 343(r)(6); 21 CFR 101.93].” An example that the FDA gives is “calcium builds strong bones.”

In the coming weeks and months I will be blogging a bit more specifically about what different labels mean, so you can tune in as time goes by… You can also spend hours reading through the FDA Website for more information on how all these claims are regulated:

Health & Nutrition Counseling

An integrative approach to health and nutrition which includes Earth consciousness.


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