Walk into any supermarket, and you'll find rows of packaged foods boasting how healthy they are. From "fat-free" to "natural" to "helps your immune system," front-of-the-box labels may give the appearance of good nutrition, but the reality is a bit more complicated.
Unlike the Nutrition Facts panel, which is tightly regulated, front-of-the-package food labels aren't as closely monitored. In addition, food companies tend to "stretch the envelope" of what's permitted, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. The result, she says: Many of the health claims you see are misleading.
In the past few years, the Food and Drug Administration has gone after more than a dozen food companies for deceptive labeling, but the most important thing for consumers to do, says Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is to "be informed so they know how to interpret the label."
Here's a look at some of the most common front-of-the-package food labels, and what they really mean:
Fat-, Sugar-, or Salt-Free
Labeling a food as "free" of a certain nutrient, whether salt, sugar, or fat, means it has none, or a "physiologically inconsequential" amount of that nutrient, according to the FDA. If the package says "calorie-free," the item has fewer than 5 calories per serving. For sugar or fat, this means the food has fewer than 0.5 grams per serving. But be careful, says Frechman. A food "could say 'fat-free,' but it could contain a lot of calories from sugar," she explains. "If you're watching your weight, you should also look at the total calories."
Low-Fat, Low-Sugar, or Low-Salt
If an item is labeled "low" in a particular element, it means that you can eat several servings without exceeding the recommended daily limit. Low-fat products have fewer than 3 grams of fat per serving; low-saturated fat items have less than 1 gram per serving. Low-sodium means the food has 140 milligrams or less per serving; low-cholesterol means 20 mg. or less and fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat. Low-calorie products have fewer than 40 calories per serving.
No Trans Fats
Even if a package advertises "no trans fats," be careful. Products carrying this label can still have up to half a gram of trans fat per serving, according to the FDA. "If you eat a bunch of servings, it could add up," says Frechman. Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that raise your LDL cholesterol levels (the "bad" kind) and increase your risk of heart disease. Because of these health risks, trans fats have been banned or restricted in several cities and counties across the United States.
Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, says the FDA requires scientific consensus before a company can claim its product strengthens a body part or prevents a disease. However, claims that a food maintains or supports a bodily function are not monitored as strictly. While the FDA gives the vague guideline that they must be "truthful and not misleading," it does not require any scientific evidence for these claims to be made. A CSPI report gives an example of how confusing this can be: The label "may help reduce the risk of heart disease" would require FDA approval, while "helps maintain a healthy heart" would not. Another common but largely unregulated health claim is "helps support immunity." According to Jacobson, this kind of wording "is a great example of how companies are tricking consumers," because there may not be any evidence to back their claims. Nestle offers her own advice: "My somewhat facetious rule is never to buy anything with a health claim because they are all misleading."
The FDA has no formal definition for what "natural" means, but defers to a nearly 20-year-old policy that says it will not object to the label as long as the product "does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances." In the end, Nestle says, the "natural" label "means basically whatever the manufacturer decides."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has specific guidelines that food producers must comply with if they want to use the "organic" label. Animal products cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones, and plants cannot be grown with conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage. Genetic engineering and irradiation, exposing crops to radiation to kill bacteria and other pests, are also prohibited for plants to be considered organic.
There are three levels of organic to look for in stores. "One hundred percent organic" means products are made entirely from organic ingredients, "organic" means that at least 95 percent of a product's ingredients are organic, and "made with organic ingredients" indicates that at least 70 percent of ingredients are organic. While going organic may be better for the environment, Frechman says it's "not necessarily" the healthier option. "The science is mixed," she says.
According to the FDA, food items labeled "fresh" must be raw or unprocessed, and never have been frozen or heated. They also cannot contain any preservatives. However, "fresh" does not mean that fruits and vegetables have been picked recently, or that animals were killed at a certain time. As Frechman says, "fresh" produce may have bacteria from sitting in a store or on a truck for a long time, so make sure you wash all fruits and vegetables.
Genetically modified foods—whose DNA has been altered with the help of modern technology—do not have to be labeled, though their safety is still up for debate in the scientific community. (According to the World Health Organization, "GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.") The majority of corn and soy—primary ingredients in junk food—are genetically modified, so researchers estimate that 70 percent of all processed foods contain some genetically modified ingredients, though you wouldn't know it to look at the packaging. The only way to avoid genetically modified foods is to buy 100 percent organic. But be on the lookout for new policy changes—a California ballot measure will ask voters in November whether the state should require that all genetically modified foods be labeled.