When trying to decipher terms listed on products can be difficult. Packaging is confusing because of all of the different terms listed. Here’s the breakdown on what some of these terms REALLY mean for you:

Natural: Probably the most commonly misunderstood label placed on packaging. It is not a trustworthy nutritional term, but rather a marketing ploy used on packaging to make a product more appealing to consumers. It does not mean it is safe or nutritious.

What does it mean? Absolutely nothing! There are no regulations on the word “natural”. It can be applied to any product.

Organic: The term “organic” is highly regulated and strictly enforced by the USDA through the National Organic Program and the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Unless it is certified by the USDA, it cannot be marketed as “organic”. It refers solely to farming practices that avoids using antibiotics, conventional pesticides, growth hormones and irradiation in animal and plant products.

100% Organic – All the ingredients are organic.

Organic – This has been certified as containing 95% organically produced ingredients, excluding water and salt. The other 5% of ingredients must be on the allowed list and must be products not currently produced organically for the commercial market.

Made with Organic Ingredients – A label on a processed product containing 70% organically produced ingredients. Additionally the product can list up to three additional organically produced ingredients on the package with the percentage; however, it cannot use the USDA seal on any packaging.

Packaging of any product containing less than 70% organic cannot display the term organic, but can list organically produced ingredients.

What does it mean? If packaging says “organic” then it has been inspected to meet the requirements of the act. This term has no relation to whether the product is nutritionally sound or not. If the USDA’s “organic” symbol is on a packaging, this indicates that for was raised using organic farming procedures and it is at least 95% organic (anything less cannot carry the symbol). Currently, there is no requirement to use this symbol, but manufacturers display it on a voluntary basis. This term on a food label does not guarantee that it is healthy or nutritionally better for you.

Whole Grain: The FDA defines whole grains as “cereal grains that consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked fruit of the grains whose principal components — the starchy endosperm, germ and bran — are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact grain.”

What does it mean? Using the term “whole grain” on packaging meets the above definition. Not as strictly enforced as the term “organic”. It is regulated trustworthy when found packaging. BEWARE of similar terminology like “wheat bread”, “multigrain”, “100% wheat” meant to confuse and mislead you into buying products not made with whole grains. Check the ingredient statement to be sure the one of the first ingredients is indeed whole grain.

Gluten Free: A term not with pending government regulation. It continues to become more popular on packaging.

What does it mean? It’s confusing since products stating “gluten free” can mean any number of things specific to that product. Until the government regulation is released on the use of the term “gluten free”, you should be wary of the term “gluten free” on packaging and investigate the company to see what exactly the define as “gluten free” on their packaging because it could mean only that:

  • it may be tested to ensure the absence of gluten
  • it may simply not contain any gluten-containing grains
  • it may be inherently free of gluten, but not tested

Even with all of these, that does not mean that it is safely gluten free.

Kosher: A term that refers to foods that are in accord with Kashrut, the set of Jewish dietary laws that regulate how food is processed and what food is safe to eat when. It means that the source of the ingredients and the facility meets strict quality and cleanliness standards. There are several kosher symbols listed on products.

Food packages are meant to tempt consumers. That’s called marketing. Some of these claims have specific meanings, defined by government regulation, but others do not. Always check the Nutrition Facts on the package and the Ingredients List, which are required by law on packaged foods. It will determine the truth of what is really in the package.

  • Calorie-free – Contains less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Cholesterol-free – A serving contains no more than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat.
  • Drink – A term used when a product is not 100% juice. It may, in fact, be mostly sugar and water, with added vitamin C. This enables the manufacturer to say the product is “high in vitamin C,” even if it’s a long way from being real orange juice.
  • Energy – Refers to any product that contains calories. Just about any drink, except water, could meet that definition. (e.g., energy drinks)
  • Enriched – Indicator that something bad was done to the food requiring another process to put some of the good stuff back in. Enriched flour or enriched white bread is not as healthy as their whole wheat counterparts.
  • Fat-free – Contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. For example, suppose a food is labeled 95% “fat-free.” This means that 5% of the total weight of the food is fat, (which may not seem like much), yet a single gram of fat contains nine calories compared to four calories in a gram of protein or carbohydrates. Five grams of fat in 100 grams of ground or dark-meat turkey represents one-fourth of the calories in that serving.
  • Free – Contains none or trivial amounts of a substance, such as sodium, fat, cholesterol, calories, or sugars.
  • Fresh – Unprocessed, uncooked, unfrozen (for example, fresh or freshly-squeezed orange juice). Washing and coating of fruits and vegetables are allowed. If a food has been quickly frozen, it can be described as fresh-frozen, which is commonly done with fresh fish.
  • Good source – Contain 10%-19% of the daily value of a particular nutrient per serving (e.g., vitamin A).
  • Healthy – Contains no more than 3 grams of fat (including one gram of saturated fat) and 60 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. The food must also contain 10% of the daily value of one of these nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber. “Healthy” individual foods must contain no more than 300 milligrams of sodium; pre-packaged meals can’t exceed 480 milligrams. There is no limit on the sugar contents.
  • High – Contains 20% or more of the recommended daily value of this nutrient per serving. (e.g., high-iron)
  • Lean – Fewer than 10 grams of fat, four grams of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams of a food. “Extra lean” means the same thing, except the food has less than 2 grams of saturated fat and less than 5 grams of total fat.
  • Less – Contains at least one-quarter less of this nutrient than the regular food to which it is compared (e.g., contains less sodium).
  • Lite or Light – Contains one-third fewer calories or one-half the fat of the traditional version of the food.
  • Low calorie – Contains 40 calories or less per serving. Be sure to check the number of servings a package contains.
  • Low cholesterol – Contains no more than 20 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Low-fat – Contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
  • Low saturated fat – Contains 1 gram of fat or less per serving.
  • Made from Natural – It simply means the manufacturer started with a natural source, but by the time the food was processed, so it may be anything but “natural.”
  • Made from/with Natural Ingredients – It simply means the food started with this product. For example, the claim “made from 100% corn oil” may be technically correct, yet it is misleading. The label really means the processor started with 100% corn oil, but along the way may have diluted or hydrogenated it, changing it into a fat, not one that flows free and golden.
  • Made with real fruit – This is a misleading term. The law does not require the label to say how much real fruit is in the product. This boast is particularly prevalent in snacks for children, which may contain a grape or two in a snack that is otherwise mostly sugar.
  • Made with vegetables – This is a misleading term. It sounds healthy, but says nothing about how much nutrition it contains.
  • Made with whole grains – This is a misleading term. Manufacturers are not legally required to say how much whole grain is in the product. Its main ingredient could be refined flour with just a small amount of whole wheat.
  • More – means that a serving contains at least 10% more of the daily value of this nutrient than the usual food to which it is compared (e.g., more vitamin C than tomato juice).
  • Natural flavors – The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines “natural flavors” as: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis, which contains a flavoring constituent derived from a spice, fruit, fruit juice, vegetable, vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf, or similar plant material; meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. This broad definition simply means that “natural flavors” are extracts from these nonsynthetic foods.
  • Not from concentrate – Not necessarily nutritionally superior. Concentrating juices simply means that the water is removed and YOU add it back before consumption. This is more of an economic change than a nutritional one because smaller packages are cheaper to transport and store.
  • Pure – This term has no regulated meaning in packaging. It tells you nothing.
  • Reduced calorie – Contains at least 25 percent fewer calories than regular versions of the product.
  • Reduced fat or Reduced Calorie – Contains at least 25% less fat than regular versions of the food.
  • Smoked – Legally describes the flavor of the food, not how it was smoked. Reality is that a product could be artificially or chemically smoked and/or just contain smoked flavoring to be legally labeled as “smoked”.
  • Sprouted Grains: A term used for grains that are soaked in water until the seed begins to sprout. There is no regulated definition. They do count as whole grains according to the Whole Grains Council.