Weight Loss

“Low Fat!” “Sugar Free!” and More. . .But Are They Really? We Decipher Common Food Terms

How many times have you been in a store and seen food packaging that read “healthy!”, “low sodium!”, “sugar free!,” “natural!”, and so on? If you’ve doubted what those terms actually meant, you have reason to wonder. While the FDA and USDA work to regulate and provide guidelines for consumer safety and transparency, there is still room for improvement. Read on for some of the most common terms and how they can impact your health.


Eating healthy sounds simple, but the term “healthy” does not necessarily reveal the true nutritional value of a food. The FDA is currently considering how to redefine the term “healthy” as a nutrient content claim. In the meantime, food manufacturers can continue to use the term “healthy” on foods that meet the current regulatory definition:

1-The item(s) are not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats


2- Contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value (DV) per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) of potassium or vitamin D

That’s it. Seems to leave quite a bit of wiggle room, right?

The FDA states: “This guidance is intended to advise food manufacturers of our intent to exercise enforcement discretion relative to foods that use the implied nutrient content claim ‘healthy’ on their labels.”

Since regulation of the term is a work-in-progress, keep in mind that the current guidelines are just a first step in helping consumers decipher the true content of a product. Still check the label to better understand what the ingredients are, and the nutritional contribution as far as fat content, sugar, and other details.


The FDA (which regulates roughly 80% of food products in the U.S.), currently does not have a regulatory definition of what constitutes a “natural” product. In the past, the agency has even gone as far as declining to set a regulation, citing lack of resources. In November 2015, in response to three citizen petitions, the FDA initiated the process of requesting public comments in the search for how to define what is natural, and how to regulate products labeled “natural”. The public weighed in- leaving over 7,000 comments. So far, regulations have not been set for products labeled “natural”.

Previously, the FDA has utilized the definition of “natural” to mean “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” But, without a set guideline, the term is up for interpretation.

On the other hand, the USDA (which regulates meat, eggs, and poultry products) defines “natural” as any product that “does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed.” However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals.

Clearly, this is a term to be weary of, considering the lack of oversight and guidelines as to what can be labeled as “natural”.

Sugar Free

Excessive sugar consumption is a source of many health concerns like blood sugar issues, weight gain, and risk of heart disease. A fifteen-year study on added sugar and heart disease revealed that over the course of the study participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar.

In response to consumer awareness of the detriment of excessive sugar intake, many “sugar-free,” “low sugar,” “reduced sugar,” and “no added sugar” options have popped up in the marketplace. But, as we have previously outlined, not all labels are transparent as they could be; the new nutrition labels must now indicate added sugars separate from naturally occurring sugars to reduce any confusion on the totality of ingredients.

According to the FDA, “Sugar-Free” means less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving on the Nutrition Facts Panel, and “contains no ingredient that is a sugar or generally understood to contain sugars.” You can also check the ingredient list and see if any sugars, sweeteners, sugar alcohols or zero calorie sweeteners are listed. The statements “no added sugar” and “without added sugar” are only allowed if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient is added during processing.

So what about other sources of sugar, like naturally occurring sugars? Whole foods such as fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains and dairy products have no added sugars, yet are still not technically sugar-free because of naturally occurring sugars. When trying to limit sugar consumption, factoring in these sources is important.

Sugar-free is often mistaken to mean “no sugar at all,” but the truth behind it is that it may only mean “no added white sugar.” Natural substitutes like honey, agave, and maple syrup are still a source of sugar and are often found in high amounts in foods that claim to be sugar free. And that’s not to mention the presence of artificial sweeteners, which are often used to provide the sweet flavor without using other sugar sources. In some cases, when one ingredient is “low” or “free” of an ingredient, another ingredient may be included at high levels. One great example is low fat yogurt- this article outlines how many brands that are labeled “low fat” or “non fat” have 14 grams of sugar (or more!) which is roughly half the recommended amount for the whole day!


Organic food has gained popularity as awareness grows as to the detriment of additives, pesticides, and other contaminants. Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.

The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows:

Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

The USDA organic label

Products must fall into one of three categories to be considered organic and earn the label from the USDA:

  • 100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients- may use the “organic” label
  • Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients- may use the “organic” label
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30% including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms)- may not use the “organic” label

Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.

The document blow provides more specifics on the restrictions surrounding organic products as set forth by the USDA.

Organic food is often thought of as more expensive and often overlooked by consumers because of this. These factors do contribute to an occasional higher cost:

  • Organic farmers don’t receive federal subsidies
  • Organic farming is management intensive
  • Organic farms are usually smaller than conventional farms and consequently do not benefit from scaling their production
  • Converting land to an organic farm is a three-year, intensive process to ensure the quality of the product which results in higher expense

As demand for organic products increases, the cost will inevitably fall as more farmers convert their land to produce organic products. Large companies are taking note of the demand for organic products- Costco, for example, has gone as far as lending money to farmers to start organic farms, or expand their organic production to meet demand. As we shared in the post on how to find quality foods at a reasonable cost, organic doesn’t have to be expensive- being savvy with which grocer you frequent, seeking out promotions (flyers, store apps, and customer loyalty programs), and farmers markets, for example, can help bring down the cost and make it more accessible.

Gluten Free

Gluten Free has become a frequently used term in the food market. For those with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that impacts how the body reacts to gluten, it is important to be able to clearly understand what a food contains. The Celiac Disease Foundations shares that gluten is “a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale – a cross between wheat and rye. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together. Gluten can be found in many types of foods, even ones that would not be expected.”

The FDA established “gluten-free” as meaning that the food either is inherently gluten free or does not contain an ingredient that is:

  • A gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat)
  • Derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour)
  • Derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch)
  • The use of an ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food. Also, any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm (To be able to adhere to regulation, the FDA must be able to scientifically detect gluten levels; currently there aren’t measures to test for gluten in amounts less than 20 ppm.).

The final rule by the FDA applies to packaged foods, but the FDA states that restaurants making a gluten-free claim on their menus should be consistent with FDA’s definition.

Here are some other details of how to read nutrition labels to identify possible gluten sources, and other FAQs.

Other Food Terms

These are just a few commonly seen terms. The American Cancer Association compiled a list of food terms that can be applied to many other items- keep in mind that while these amounts sound minimal, it can quickly add up over the course of the day!

Free (fat free, sugar free, calorie free):

This means that a product does not have any of that nutrient, or so little that it’s unlikely to make any difference to your body. For example, “calorie-free” means less than 5 calories per serving. “Sugar-free” and “fat-free” both mean less than 0.5 g (grams) per serving.

Low (low sodium, low fat):

While 5-10 calories or other small additions of sodium, fat, and sugar may be easy to overlook, they can quickly add up. Here are some specific definitions of “low”:

  • Low-fat: 3 g (grams) or less per serving
  • Low-saturated fat: 1 g or less per serving, with not more than 15% of the calories coming from saturated fat
  • Low-sodium: 140 mg (milligrams) or less per serving
  • Very low sodium: 35 mg or less per serving
  • Low-cholesterol: 20 mg or less and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving
  • Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving

Lean and extra lean (as pertaining to meat, poultry, seafood, and game):

Lean: less than 10 g (grams) total fat, 4.5 g or less saturated fat, and less than 95 mg (milligrams) cholesterol per serving and per 100 g (about 3¾ ounces by weight, just under a quarter of a pound).

Extra lean: less than 5 g fat, less than 2 g saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g.

High (high protein, high calcium)

This term can be used if the food contains 20% or more of the Daily Value of a certain nutrient per serving. Look for this term if you’re trying to get more of a certain nutrient.

Good source (may also read as “enriched” “extra”)

This term means that 1 serving of a food contains 10% to 19% of the Daily Value for a certain nutrient.

Reduced (reduced fat, reduced sodium)

This term is used when a food has been altered to take out at least 25% of a certain component – like fat, salt, or calories. Companies may not use the term “reduced” on a product if the original version already meets the requirement for a “low” claim

Less (less sodium, less fat, less sugar)

This term means that a food, whether altered or not, contains 25% less of a nutrient or calories than another food. It could be the “regular” version of the same food, or a different food. For example, pretzels that have 25% less fat than potato chips could carry a “less” claim on their label.

This can seem like a dizzying amount of information. How can one person be expected to remember all these details? The best bet is to gain a solid foundation for what constitutes a well-rounded diet, study the labels to see if item provides nutritional value and not an excess of nutritionally absent ingredients. The packaging is meant to catch the consumer’s attention, but staying savvy about what the nutrition label shares is what will ensure you stay on the right path. Using resources, like the Dietary Guidlines for Americans, (offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture), or this guide provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a great place to start- or speak to your provider.















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