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What Your Food’s Content Claims Really Mean

understnading nutrition claims and food claims

When you look at the United States as a whole, it is no secret that our waistlines have grown to ghastly measurements in comparison to what previous generations had on display.  Because of this, more people are learning and making more of an effort to be mindful of what they consume.  For many, this means learning how to read food labels.  Unfortunately, it is a tricky business to actually understand what it all means.  It is usually general practice to read what is on the nutrition label, but what makes you pick up that product to begin with? For some it may be the picture, but for even more it is the wording on the front of the package.  If we were to pick up every food package and examine each one equally, we could spend days in a supermarket sifting through the average of 50,000 plus items that line the shelves.  We all took basic grammar in school so when a general term such as “fat free” is put on a box, we think we have it all figured out.  But could it really be that simple in a world where food companies’ marketing determines how well they do against their competition?  Do you know what “organic” means in comparison to “made with organic ingredients?” They actually mean something different.  I am going to list some of the more common terms we come face to face with on the supermarket shelves, so hopefully you are able to make a more conscious decision about the healthy products you buy.

 Salt-, Sugar-, and/or Fat-Free

Common sense tells us that this means the product contains absolutely no fat, sugar, or salt.  This is FALSE.  According to the FDA, these products with these labels can actually contain up to .5 grams per serving.  This is what the FDA considers to be “physiologically inconsequential.”  Also, something to keep in mind, when these items are removed from a food that generally contains them, they are almost always replaced with some form of sugar or artificial sweetener, so watch the total calories or harmful additives those replacements will add.

Low-Salt, -Cholesterol, and/or –Calories

The low-salt label means that the product contains less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.  The low-cholesterol labels means that the food contains less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol and also fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat.  If you are looking for low calorie, you are getting a product that has fewer than 40 calories per serving.  Again, when these are taken out of the food, something is taking the place of it to give it back some flavor and texture.  Additionally, watch the serving size.  Many low calorie foods have a serving size that is very small (such as three crackers).  Would you only eat three crackers?  Many foods can be labeled a low-calorie food if the manufacturer makes the serving small enough.

No Trans Fat

We have all seen on the news how trans fats are bad for us due to the raise in LDL cholesterol they can cause.  Some cities have even banned them from being served.  Or have they?  According to the FDA, a product can still contain up to .5 grams per serving and be considered to be free of trans fats.  This can add up quickly, especially if many foods you consume have that trace amount in them.

Whole Grains

This one can catch most anyone off guard.  We all know whole grains are what we want to aim for in our diet, and we want to eliminate refined white flours.  Next time you are in the cereal isle, take a glance at all the sugary cereals that are all the colors of the rainbow and notice how many of them are labeled “whole grain.”  You may be unpleasantly surprised.  The FDA says that this is completely legit though.  No matter how minute the amount of whole grain flour is added to the product, it can be labeled as whole grain.  The same goes for “multigrain.”  This does not tell us what the grains are, just that there is more than one.  What is just as it sounds though is “100% whole grain.”  This is the indicator that the product is completely whole grain.

Health Claims

“May help reduce the risk of heart disease” is an example of a claim that would require prior approval from the FDA to be used on a product since it makes a specific claim to a specific issue.  If that company were to change it up and say “helps maintain a healthy heart” that is completely different.  The FDA does not consider this to be a health claim and these may be used freely as long as they are not “misleading.”  Another example of a common label is “helps support immunity.”  This is not required to have approval from the FDA.  My suggestion? Do your research and find out what whole foods do in fact benefit your health rather than depending on the company who wants your money.  (The full listing of specific health claims allowed can be found on the FDA website using this link.


This is one that we see more everyday.  In a consumer world full of GMO foods, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, we all want to eat as naturally as possible.  This is hard when you do the majority of your shopping at a supermarket and do not have access to local farmers markets and family run stores.  This label too has varying degrees of meaning.  The one to look for is “100% organic.” This indicates that the product has been grown or raised as nature intended.  No pesticides, sewage, hormones, or antibiotics can be added: ever.  Taking it down a notch is “organic.”  This, while it may sound like it is ideal, is 95% organic.  That leaves 5% that can be all those nasty things we do not want to have in our foods.  And on the bottom of the organic totem pole is “made with organic ingredients.”  This does not simply mean that every ingredient is organic.  This actually means that a mere 70% of the ingredients are organic.  Yes, this is better than no organic ingredients at all but try to aim for the 100% whenever you can.  Lastly, 100% organic is the only way to ensure you are staying clear of foods containing GMOs.


When I see this word, I picture the orange juice commercial where the orange grove is on the other side of the refrigerator section.  It comes from the tree and ends up on the shelf with little time between.  This is very far from what the actual meaning in the food label world.  To be labeled as fresh, the food cannot have been processed, must be raw and uncooked or heated, and never frozen.  It does not give any guidelines on how long it took to get from the tree, field, cow, or chicken coop, to the store.  A piece of food from Africa could take 2 weeks to get to your store, sit in a box for another week, and be labeled as fresh.

When it comes down to it, knowing labels can be a huge advantage to your health but you cannot trust the marketing of companies.  On the FDA website, there is a list of some of the most popular food companies who have gotten warning from the FDA because they have been making claims that are not true.  So buy organic when you can, and when you cannot, use these small pieces of information to help guide you along the way.

ashley clawson



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