Food is a lot of things. Food is nourishment, inspiration, and tradition. But food is also a business.

A label placed on any food product's packaging is a good thing that we need in order to understand what we are buying--but it also serves as a tiny advertising slot for food companies to entice consumers to put the product in their cart. I don’t mind buying something with a lot of fat and sugar when I feel like indulging and I do so intentionally, but I don’t want to buy something loaded up on sugar and junk on accident because the package painted a different picture with confusing or misleading phrasing.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires labels on food products that follow extensive rules and regulations, but the ambiguity of many labeling terms leaves room for confusion. By no means am I against food labeling. It takes a great deal of work and coordination to label our food--the whole Nutella debate is a great example--and I understand why it’s tricky. However, I am against people being led to believe that they are purchasing something that is a healthy choice, when in all actuality, they are just being fooled by a buzzword that’s meant to draw them to a product. We can be smarter shoppers if we know the full story behind certain words on food labels.

Here’s the scoop on 8 commonly misunderstood food label phrases.


1. “Light” can be used in reference to fat or calories.

When you see a product designated as "light" that means there must be either 50% less calories from fat or 1/3 less calories overall than the amount contained in the classic version of the food product. For example, light potato chips have to have 50% fewer calories from fat (or 1/3 less total calories per serving) compared to the original potato chip of that brand. In reality, the food might not be legitimately low in calories; it’s just lighter in comparison to something else. Keep in mind that "light" can also be used to describe texture or color when used on a food label, which has nothing to do with the nutrient content (like light brown sugar).

2. “Low-fat”, “reduced-fat,” or “less fat” do not mean “healthier.”

A food must have less than 3 grams of fat per serving (officially called, the “reference amount customarily consumed”) in order to be considered low-fat. In order for a food to be called reduced fat or less fat, there must be 25% less fat in the food compared to the original iteration of the same product. The problem with a lower fat content is that the low-fat versions of foods often have added sugar and other fillers to make up for the fat that was removed. Fat contributes to flavor and texture, and food manufacturers have to make up the difference with added ingredients.

3. “No sugar added” does not mean that there is no sugar in the food.

Take fruit juice, for example. The label may say no sugar added, but the ingredients include “juice concentrate,” which contributes to the overall sugar content of the juice. While this juice concentrate is high in sugar and was added to the juice, the label is considered fair because the company didn’t add straight-up sugar to the juice. Many foods that have sugar in them naturally might have a no sugar added label, but they certainly still contain sugar. So if you are keeping an eye on your sugar intake, don't stop at the "know sugar added" labeling on the front of the product; flip it over and read the nutrition label as well.

4. The terms “natural” and “all-natural” do not have a clear definition.

"Natural" is a tricky one, because most packaged food is processed, and therefore, no longer straight from the earth without being tampered with. The FDA’s position on "natural" is that the food should not contain anything artificial that is not normally expected to be found in that food. Their policy does not include anything related to food production or processing methods like pesticides or pasteurization, and "natural" doesn’t have anything to do with nutritional benefits. Basically, seeing "natural" on a food label doesn’t tell you much beyond this: The food company didn’t add any dyes, or whatever else, to the product that weren’t already present or expected to be there.

5. The FDA doesn’t have anything to do with “organic.

The FDA doesn’t determine whether the food is organic. The National Organic Program has it’s own list of qualifications for farmers and businesses if they want their products and facilities to be considered organic. If you want to make sure your food is completely organic--meaning all of the ingredients are organic--look for the green, circular stamp on the package that says “USDA organic.” That means that the food company applied and met detailed regulations. Bottom line: There’s a difference between 100% organic and meeting one organic qualification related to how the food was grown.

6. There is an actual difference between “natural flavors” and “artificial flavors.

An artificial flavor is one that did not come from a spice, edible yeast, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, herb, any plant material, meat, poultry, dairy, or fermentation, while a natural flavor has. Natural flavorings usually refer to an essence or extractive, essential oil, distillate, or any product of roasting or heating one of the items listed above for flavoring purposes only (not nutritional). If you want to make sure your food is actually flavored with the ingredient touted on the package (like if you see maple-flavored cookies), rather than an artificial compound meant to mimic it, that item or some derivative of it (maple syrup, maple extract, etc.) will most likely be listed within the ingredients.

7. “Gluten-Free” products aren't intended to help you lose weight.

Gluten-free has become a buzzy phrase in terms of food advertising, particularly when it comes to snack foods. This label is important for people with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease, but for everyone else, it just means that a certain protein was removed from the food--often via the wheat-based flour. Gluten is like fat in that it contributes to a foods texture, so when it is removed, something can be added in its place. For most of us, there’s no point in paying more for a gluten-free snack.

8. “Multigrain” does not mean you’re eating whole wheat.

When you want fiber-rich wheat bread rather than white bread, look for labels that say 100% whole wheat or whole grain, not multigrain or “made with multigrain.” The bread may contain multiple grains, but there's a good chance that it's made with majority white flour. Check the ingredient list for the first ingredient, if it says white (or all-purpose) flour, it’s a no-go.

By Hannah Haas Burkhalter and Hannah Haas Burkhalter