Food Labels You Need to Understand for Healthy Eating

Food Labels You Need to Understand for Healthy Eating

Healthy eating starts with knowing what’s in your food. Unfortunately, that’s not always such an easy task. Whether the result of design or accident, food labels are notoriously tricky to decipher. A recent survey conducted by OnePoll in partnership with Crispy Green is just one of many studies demonstrating the extent to which consumers find food labels confusing. As revealed in the Crispy Green survey, more than half of Americans (53 percent) feel like food labels are sometimes misleading, and a remarkable 82 percent feel they have been tricked by nutrition labels in the past.

While it’s certainly good news that more Americans are actually reading food labels these days—77 percent, according to the Crispy Green survey—unfortunately, doing so won’t help you make healthy choices if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Read on to get the facts behind “healthy” food label terms that might not mean what you think they do.

“Made with [ingredient]”

What you think it means: That the product is a good source of whatever healthy ingredient the label claims. For example, many bread products are labeled “Made with whole grains,” so the assumption is that they contain plenty of them.

What it actually means: “Made with” is a misleading term because, while it’s certainly based on fact, it doesn’t really tell the whole truth. All “made with” means is that the product contains at least a tiny amount of whatever ingredient is mentioned—it doesn’t actually make any guarantees about specific quantities. Therefore, a loaf of bread claiming it’s “made with whole grains” might contain just a teaspoonful of whole grain flour, but a cupful of refined flour. In this case, the label is correct, but deceptively so.


What to do: If you want to be sure the product you’re buying really does contain a significant quantity of the ingredient(s) in question, it’s best to look at the actual ingredient list rather than labeling claims. Ingredient lists are organized by quantity; that is, the more of a specific ingredient a product contains, the closer to the beginning of the list it will appear. You can also look for the term “100%” instead of “made with.” A loaf of bread labeled “100% whole grain” will, in fact, be made exclusively with whole grains (and as such, whole wheat or whole grain flour will typically be the first ingredient on the ingredient list).

“Lightly sweetened”

What you think it means: That the product doesn’t contain much added sugar.

What it actually means: The FDA does not regulate the term “lightly sweetened,” so this is purely a marketing claim. Products labeled “lightly sweetened” may still contain considerable amounts of sugar or other artificial sweeteners.

What to do: If you’re looking for a product that doesn’t contain any added sugar, look for the label “unsweetened.” This regulated term means that no sugars or artificial sweeteners have been added (however, there may still be plenty of naturally occurring sugars, as is the case with many fruit juices and similar products). You can also learn how to recognize sugars on product ingredient lists: anything with the suffix “-ose” is a type of sugar, so if a food contains several of these ingredients, it’s likely full of added sugars.

“Low” and “reduced”

What you think it means: That the product doesn’t contain a significant amount of the specified ingredient (the terms “low” and “reduced” are most often used with ingredients like sodium).

grocery store

What it actually means: Both these terms are regulated, but it’s important to understand how they’re different from each other. Using the example of sodium, a product advertised as “low sodium” is guaranteed to contain no more than 140 mg of sodium per serving. “Reduced sodium,” on the other hand, simply means that the product contains at least 25 percent less sodium than the regular version of the same product (or other similar foods); it could, however, still contain far more than 140 mg per serving.

What to do: If you’re buying a low-sodium product because you want to keep your salt intake in check, it’s important to stick to the product’s specified serving size. If you’re considering a reduced-sodium product, compare its nutritional label with that of the regular product to see if the reduction in sodium has resulted in the use of other, perhaps less desirable additives.


What you think it means: That the product doesn’t contain any of the ingredient(s) mentioned. “Fat-free” or “sodium-free” are common examples of this term.

What it actually means: When it comes to food labeling, “free” means “trace amounts” rather than “none.” According to the FDA, products labeled fat-, sugar-, or sodium-free can still contain up to 0.5 grams of fat or sugar or 5 mg of sodium per serving. In addition, “sugar-free” products may still contain artificial sweeteners.

What to do: Look beyond the label to the ingredient list and the nutrition information to check out whether the ingredients in question are still present (albeit in very small quantities).

Mark CrumpackerMark Crumpacker is the CMO and President of Zume Culinary at Zume Inc.,  the Silicon Valley company that has revolutionized the pizza delivery business through its fleet of mobile kitchens outfitted with smart ovens. Mark has more than two decades of experience in the realm of consumer behavior and its effect on brands’ marketing strategies. Mark studied economics at the University of Colorado and earned a bachelor of fine arts in advertising and graphic design from the ArtCenter College of Design. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markcrumpacker and read his full bio here