Food Labels Decoded


By Sue Schick
CEO, UnitedHealthcare of Pennsylvania & Delaware

Food labels can be overwhelming. “Organic,” “100% Natural,” “Fat Free,” “Heart Healthy,” and about a half dozen more claims can be found on everything from cereal boxes to bags of chips. Luckily, in 2009 the FDA established guidelines that help decode food labels for the average consumer. Here’s a look at commonly used labels and what they mean to you.


What it means: Foods labeled “Organic” contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients (no pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, or antibiotics). Foods must also have been grown or processed using organic farming methods.

Why you should care: Super foods like apples, berries, peaches, and peppers are most affected by pesticides. Luckily, organic versions bypass the chemicals often passed onto the customer. But are organic foods more nutritious and safer? According to a study from Stanford University, not necessarily. Researchers found that there’s no difference nutrition-wise between organic and non-organic foods.

Fat Free and Low Fat

What it means: According to the FDA, a fat-free food contains less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving while a low-fat food has 3 grams or less of fat per serving.

Why you should care: While lowering fat in your diet can help trim calories, keep in mind food manufacturers often add extra sugar—a diet pitfall—to accommodate the lack of flavor from losing the fat.

Low Sodium

What it means: Foods containing less than 150 milligrams or less per serving can be labeled “Low Sodium.”

Why you should care: According to the American Heart Association, 97 percent of children and adolescents eat too much salt, putting them at greater risk for cardiovascular diseases. Choose foods with fewer milligrams of sodium than calories per serving to keep sodium in check.


What it means: Foods containing less than 0.5 gram of sugar per serving.

Why you should care: Sugar-free doesn’t necessarily mean low-calorie. Manufacturers still keep the fat in the food plus add artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, which often act as laxatives, to provide a sugary flavor. According to an article from Harvard Medical School the FDA has approved just five artificial sweeteners: sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, neotame, and acesulfame.

100% Natural

What it means: Exactly what it says: “all natural” foods, per the FDA contain no artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or colors as well as no synthetic ingredients.

Why you should care: Don’t be fooled by the “all natural” label. One hundred percent natural foods can still contain a serious amount of sugar, calories, and fat, which wreak havoc on your waistline. Healthy, “100% Natural” foods will contain low amounts of saturated fat and sugar.