Nowadays, it seems like every food label
is designed to make you think its
contents are healthy (or at least not all
that bad). And while a new Harris
Interactive survey shows that the
majority of Americans say they find
those labels helpful in making healthy
food choices, some of them mean diddly
While the Food and Drug Administration
is in charge of defining food labels,
manufacturers are constantly coming up
with new ones that aren’t regulated,
don’t have any real definition, and are
all about catching your eye. Meanwhile,
the ones that the FDA has defined are
rarely ever explained on food packaging
—so the chances you know what they
mean are slim says Nicolette Pace,
founder of NutriSource in Great Neck,
MORE: How to Get Nutrition Info for
Recipes That Don't Come with It
So we tapped Pace—and the FDA’s food-
labeling guide—to find out what the
most common (and confusing) labels
1. “Made with…”
You think: It’s a good source of…
whatever the ingredient the label is
It means: It contains at least a bit of said
ingredient. But since this label isn’t
defined by the FDA, how much is
Shop smart: Get an idea how much of
the ingredient the food contains by
seeing where is sits on the ingredient
list, says Lisa R. Young, adjunct
professor of nutrition, food studies, and
public health at New York University.
The closer it is to the beginning of the
list, the more of it the food contains.
You think: It’s not processed.
It means: It (probably) doesn’t contain
added colors, artificial flavors, or
synthetic substances. While the FDA
hasn’t been able to agree on a definition
for “natural” labels, it generally keeps
an eye out for foods that contain those
less-than-natural ingredients, Pace says.
“It is hard to define a food product that
is ‘natural’ because the food has
probably been processed and is no
longer truly ‘all natural.’”
Shop smart: See how long the
ingredients list is. The fewer the
ingredients, the less processed the food
generally is, says Pace.
MORE: If Natural Foods Came with
Ingredient Lists, This Is What They
Would Look Like
3. “Lightly Sweetened”
You think: It has very little sugar.
It means: It could still have (what you
might consider to be) tons of sugar or
artificial sweeteners. The FDA does not
regulate this label.
Shop smart: Look for any ingredients
with an “–ose” ending—they’re a dead
giveaway that the product contains
sugars and sweeteners.
4. “Low,” “Light,” and “Reduced”
You think: It has few calories, grams of
fat, grams of sodium, or whatever else
the label lists.
It means: The product has less of that
stuff than the original version. For
instance, the FDA states that foods can
be labeled “light” if they contain half
the fat or one-third the calories of the
original version, Pace says. Meanwhile,
manufacturers are allowed to say
products are “reduced sodium” if they
have 25 percent less than the original or
other similar foods. Keep in mind: When
companies remove fat and salt from
foods, they often replace it with sugar
and additives to keep it yummy.
Shop smart: Before you buy, compare
the “low,” “light,” or “reduced”
nutritional label with that of the original
to see how their pros and cons compare.
MORE: 4 Times It's Better to Go with the
You think: It doesn't contain any of said
It means: Apparently, in the food-
labeling world, "free" means "very
little." Specifically, 5 calories, 0.5 grams
of fat, 5 milligrams of sodium, or 0.5
grams of sugar per serving, according
to the FDA.
Shop smart: Again, a side-by-side
comparison will serve you well. If you
want to keep your supermarket trips
quick, you can even look the nutrition
labels up online before you hit the store.
6. "High in Fiber"
You think: It has a lot of natural fiber.
It means: For a food to be labeled high
in fiber, it must provide 5 grams of fiber
or more per serving. However, the fiber
doesn't have to be natural. "It can
absolutely can be an additive," says
Shop smart: Look for whole grains on
the label. If these are one of the first
three sources, chances are the fiber's