Smarter than the Label

How to understand food labels so you know what you’re eating.

A quick trip through the grocery store can be dizzying if you’re looking for the healthiest choices for you and your family. The front of food packaging often makes nutrition claims like “organic” or “good source of fiber” to entice consumers to buy the product.

However, these labels are often misleading. Instead of giving into what the front of a package says, it is important to read the nutrition information posted on the back or side of the packaging to get an accurate idea of what’s really inside.

Here’s a look at five common examples of nutrition lingo advertised on food labels and what they really mean.


Many foods are now promoted as containing organic ingredients. In the United States, food must be made up of at least 70 percent organic ingredients in order to make this claim on the packaging. If a food contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients, the packaging will be marked with the USDA Organic seal.

Organic foods have grown in popularity over the past decade, as more people are concerned about exposure to possible chemicals in food. But remember that even though a food may be organic, it isn’t necessarily better for you. A potato chip is still a potato chip.


In order for a food to be considered “light,” it must contain at least half the fat of a similar product or a third of the calories. While lower fat and fewer calories are good things when it comes to watching your weight, this label can also be deceiving. Ever eaten low-fat ice cream or drank low-calorie soda?

When purchasing “light” foods, keep in mind that the taste may be slightly different than the full-fat version. Some people prefer the taste, some don’t notice, and some don’t care for the taste of many “light” foods. Regardless, unless these light foods are items you should be including in your daily diet (fruits, vegetables, and grains), you should be wary of eating too much of them.

Good Source of Fiber

Claims about fiber are also regulated by the FDA. To be labeled as a good source of fiber, a food must contain 10 to 19 percent of the daily-recommended amount of fiber per serving. If the packaging says it is an “excellent source” of fiber, the food must contain at least 20 percent of your daily fiber allotment.

Keep in mind that not all sources of fiber are equally nutritious. Many processed foods have fiber added to them. An example of a fiber additive is inulin. While inulin is a helpful way to get a boost of fiber, it can cause stomachaches. Besides – it’s always healthier to get your fiber or other vitamins and minerals from whole foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Lower Sodium

Needing to cut down your salt intake? Then you should scan the aisles for foods that are low in sodium. In order for a product to be labeled as “lower in sodium,” it must contain a quarter less sodium than it’s counterpart. This doesn’t mean, however, that the food is necessarily low in sodium, just lower than others. A food advertised as “low sodium” contains less than 140 mg of sodium in each serving. Be sure to check the nutrition label to find out exactly how much sodium the food contains.

Contains Real Fruit Juice

A food with real fruit juice means it must be good for you, right? Wrong. The fruit juice may be the only healthy part about it. A food sweetened with fruit juice may easily contain other artificial sweeteners as well. Most sweet foods, such as candy and cookies, offer little nutritional value, so it’s best to eat them sparingly, regardless of whether or not they contain real fruit juice.

All Good, But Beware!

A food that is low-sodium, light, or organic or contains real fruit juice or fiber is certainly worth checking out. Just be careful. Do your homework by reading the nutrition label as well as the front of the package. Because a smart eater is a healthy eater.

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