These days, there’s no shortage of new health food products claiming to improve your lifestyle in more ways than one. From everyday staples like eggs and milk that have been fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, to protein and adaptogen powders that promise non-GMOs, these labels are usually large, colorful and visually enticing — and they’re supposed to be. Food manufacturers want you to believe their products have better health qualities than others. But are these labels always what they seem? We spoke with two nutritionists to learn how to decode front-of-package food labels, so you’re empowered to be a smarter, savvier shopper.
RELATED: What Makes Food “Healthy?” The FDA Wants You to Weigh In
6 Common Food Labels, Decoded
You’ll come across a plethora of food labels at the grocery store, but these are the six most common front-of-package food claims. Here’s your need-to-know from a nutritional standpoint.
1. “Fortified With”
You’ll often see this label on cereals, yogurt and even milk. “Fortification means the manufacturer has added nutrients [i.e. vitamins or minerals] that aren’t in the product [naturally],” says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and founder of DiabetesEveryDay. So does having more nutrients in a product than it would on its own make it healthier?
Not necessarily, says Smithson. “Adding nutrients to a food does not automatically deem the food healthier,” she says. “Each case is individual. For instance, if a high-calorie food is fortified with vitamins, it wouldn’t be the best choice… for someone watching their weight [due to the caloric content].”
2. “Enriched In”
Because certain nutrients are lost during processing, enriched foods have those nutrients added back in afterward, according to Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “For example, white pasta loses most of its B vitamins during the processing of the grain, so the food company adds B vitamins back in afterward.”
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, enriched foods must contain at least 10 percent more of the daily value of a nutrient compared to the same food that is not enriched. Manufacturers can use the term enriched for protein, fiber, potassium, vitamins and minerals, says Rumsey.
But as with fortification, enriching a food doesn’t always make it healthier. “We need to look at the whole product — the food plus any additions of fortification or enrichment — when deciding if it is a healthier food choice,” Smithson explains.
RELATED: Are There Health Risks to Consuming Food Dyes?
For the most part, Rumsey says that the “natural” label doesn’t mean much. “Currently the FDA doesn’t have a specific definition for ‘natural,’ but they allow manufacturers to include it on food labels if there are no added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic ingredients,” she says.
The “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” seals mean slightly different things depending on the food product in question. Most commonly, organic products have at least 95 percent of their ingredients certified organic. Organic ingredients can’t be grown with synthetic additives, like pesticides, chemical fertilizers and dyes. They also can’t be processed using industrial solvents or irradiation.
Beyond these basic certifications, Smithson says there are several tiers when it comes to labeling a product organic:
- “100% organic”: A product must contain only organically produced ingredients.
- “Organic”: A product must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
- “Made with organic ingredients”: A product must be made with at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients.
“If a product has less than 70 percent organic ingredients, manufacturers can’t include any claims on the label,” says Rumsey. But they can note which ingredients are organic in the ingredients list.
RELATED: Is Organic Really More Nutritious? Science Says Yes
The non-GMO certification confirms that a food was produced without the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Many people opt for non-GMO foods out of health concerns, but research has consistently proven that GMO foods are safe. Plus if you’re trying to avoid them, it might be hard. You’ll find GMOs in nearly every food, including canola oil, corn, squash and soy. But if you’re like the 70 percent of Americans who don’t want GMOs in their food, this is a good label to watch out for.
According to FDA guidelines, products with a “gluten-free” label don’t have any gluten-containing grains, like wheat, barley, rye or a flour with a combination of those grains. But manufacturers can also slap on a “gluten-free” label on product with less than 20 ppm gluten, so be sure to read the ingredients list carefully if you want to avoid gluten completely. It’s important to note that the label doesn’t necessarily mean that the product was made in a gluten-free facility either. For that reason, Rumsey recommends that people with celiac disease purchase foods that are only certified gluten-free and aren’t made in the same facility or on the same machinery as gluten-containing products.
RELATED: The Gluten Detecting Device You’ll Want to Own
Labels vs. Certifications
You’ll notice some of these labels correspond to certifications, while others are based on FDA guidelines. The lack of certification doesn’t necessarily mean a label is meaningless — but it might mean the standards aren’t as strict as they would be if the product were certified. So purchase a food based on your own needs, says Smithson. For example, she says, “If you’re vitamin D deficient, then you’ll want to look for products that are fortified with vitamin D. For people with celiac disease, it’s critical to purchase products that are certified gluten-free.”
Rumsey also advises to look beyond front-of-package claims. “Turn the product over and take a look at the ingredient list and nutrition facts to get a better sense of what is really in your food,” she says.
All told, the best way to be a savvy grocery shopper is to combine knowledge of your own health needs with knowledge of whatever’s in the food in question. “Try not to be overwhelmed with all of the label lingo,” says Smithson. “Focus on what is important to you and your personal health when reviewing a food label.”