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Understanding Food Labels And The Tricky Titles Companies Use - The Snap Mom

Understanding Food Labels And The Tricky Titles Companies Use

Great tips! Understanding food labels can be super confusing. Luckily we are breaking down the top 10 most common phrases to make it simpler yo make healthy choices.

by Jenna Antico | guest writer for The Snap Mom

When grocery shopping, we often read the different health claims on the labels and choose one item over another based on these claims. These are all tricks the food industry plays on us to sell their product. Terms like “fat free” or “all natural” are often placed on a food item that may not be remotely healthy. According to a Nielsen survey, “59% of consumers have a hard time understanding nutrition labels.”

Here is a list of the top 10 most common phrases the food industry uses and what they mean:

Serving Size

The FDA recommendations on serving size tend to be about a decade old and manufacturers like to make products appear low in fats and calories. They typically do this by labeling an unrealistically small serving size.

What to look for: Learn what those abstract portion sizes look like! Then you can compare what you actually eat to what the serving size on the box is. Learn what 3/4 cup of pasta looks like (hint: it’s not a bowl-full!). 1 ounce of cheese? You can use your hand to judge the size.

All Natural

This leaves tons of room for interpretation. The FDA doesn’t give a definitive answer on what “all natural” entails, as long as a food doesn’t contain added colors, artificial flavors, or “synthetic substances” it can be labeled “all natural.”

What to look for: Foods that could be GMO (corn, soy, papaya, sugar beets and any derivatives). Ingredients that cue us the food is heavily-processed and retains very little of its original nutrients. These ingredients include: wheat flour (all flour is wheat unless specified), sodium in high levels, hidden sugars, hydrogenated oils, and preservatives like sodium benzoate (BHT, BHA, TBHQ). Things that are Non-GMO verified, or USDA Organic have stricter standards, but still aren’t automatically fine. There are plenty of organic junk foods.

No Sugar Added

This doesn’t mean a product is calorie- or carbohydrate-free. Although products may not have additional sugars, they still can contain natural sugars and still may have added ingredients like carbohydrates,  simple sugars and more complex starches.

What to look for: Check the sugar levels! 4 Grams of sugar = 1 TEASPOON. That’s a small spoon size. Make sure to know how many servings you are eating too. Natural sugar additives include maltodextrin, fructose, agave, and rice syrup. Learn more hidden sugar names and why to avoid it here:

Sugar Free

Sugar-free products must have 0.5 grams or less of sugars per serving, but usually have calories and carbohydrates from other sources.

What to look for: Artificial sweeteners are either suspected hormone disrupters or toxic to the body. Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin, and more.

Free Range and Grass Fed

The USDA does not define the amount of time an animal must be outside to be classified as “free range” or “grass fed.” Any outside exposure allows the food industry to use these labels.

What to look for: It’s still worthwhile to find products that are truly free range and/or grass-fed. These animal products are actually proven to have different nutrient profiles than congenitally raised animals. The are higher in healthier fats and essential nutrients (like iron and zinc). There are alternative labels such as the American Grassfed Association (AGA) that hold stricter standards, and sites like Eat Wild that can help you find local farms where you can see for yourself.

Fat Free

When you check the label for calorie content, you will be amazed that they typically compare to the non-fat free version.

What to look for:  Compare the label to the the full-fat product. Sometimes, you lose fat, but gain sugar, sodium, and overall calories.


A product can earn the “light label” when it has 50% less fat than found in other similar products.

Made With Real Fruit

Food Labels do not typically include the percentage of ingredients used.

What to look for: Amount of sugar! Remember, 4g = 1 tsp of sugar.

Cholesterol Free

Cholesterol is produced in the liver, so any animal product you consume like meats, dairy, eggs, butters, etc. can contain cholesterol. Foods that claim to have no cholesterol cannot have more then 2 mg per serving and reduced or less cholesterol must contain 25% less than cholesterol comparable products.

What to look for: Sugar, processed fats, and sodium affect your weight and cholesterol levels more than dietary cholesterol.

Whole Grain

There is not a current regulation of what whole grain means. Food companies often still use bleached flowers and brown food coloring with grains on top and label their bread whole grain, and whole grain breads typically are higher in sugars.

What to look for: Again, added sugars! Also, glance at the fiber levels. Whole grains should be higher in fiber levels, but often aren’t because of processing techniques, or using equal amounts of processed flour. Also, the ingredient label must say WHOLE wheat flour, not wheat flour.

Navigating the waters of big companies labels can be hard and may initially lengthen your grocery store trips while you read all the labels, but once you learn your way around, your health will thank you! Also, sometimes it’s best to stick with things that don’t have labels to figure out (aka fruits, veggies, whole foods).

Confused about how to eat healthy? -> Check out Dr. Price’s top 2o dietary guidelines for optimum health 

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