Food Labels: Understanding Common Phrases and Claims

Written By Julie Paiva, CHHC


While we are looking for food labels to tell us if a product is healthy or not, it is important to remember that the manufacturers and stores are looking to sell the product to us.  Therefore, the function of  labeling is often not in line with the “truth” that we seek when trying to make nutritionally conscious purchases. Labels can be misleading, especially if you don’t learn to read between the lines and examine the fine print.


When doing your shopping for the week, the best advice is to buy things on the outside walls of the grocery store verses the inside isles.  This is where you will find your fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood.  However, sometimes you need something boxed and reading the labels on the items can be like trying to understand a foreign language. Knowing what words on the label really mean is a big step toward making nutritious choices at the market. Here are some common words and phrases to keep an eye out for next time you grocery shop.




Consider the word “pure.” Who doesn’t want to eat food that’s “pure?” You certainly wouldn’t want to put contaminated food in your body. Here’s the trouble: the word “pure” has no regulated, agreed upon meaning in food labeling. Also, it tells you nothing about what’s in the package that perhaps should not be there.




Unfortunately, “natural” is probably the least trustworthy of all the label terms. While the term “natural” sounds appealing, it says very little about the nutritional quality of food, or even its safety. In reality, “natural” is empty of nutritional meaning.


“Made From”


This phrase simply means the food you are purchasing started with this product. For example, the claim “made from 100% corn oil” may be technically correct, but it’s misleading. Consumers may (understandably) believe they are consuming 100% corn oil.  Along the way it may have diluted it or hydrogenated it.


“Made With”


“Made With” can be very misleading. “Made with real fruit” is a good example. Manufacturers are not required to specify how much fruit. This boast is particularly prevalent in snacks for children, which may contain a grape or two in a snack that is otherwise mostly sugar. “Made with whole grains” is another little white [label] lie. You as the consumer are led to believe it is a whole grain product, but the label is not required to state how much whole grain is in the product. Its main ingredient could still be refined flour.




This is often a tip-off that something good was taken out of the food, requiring another process to put some of that good stuff back in.




This can be the most commonly confusing for label. The United States Department of Agriculture regulates the use of the certified organic label. These days, you see foods labeled as organic all over the grocery store. Anything that does not meet the USDA requirements is not permitted to wear that special seal. But what is an organic label supposed to mean? Foods that are labeled as 100% certified organic are foods and ingredients that were grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, in soil free of these substances. But not all “organic” labels are equal:


  • USDA Certified 100% Organic: If your product has a USDA organic seal and says it is 100% organic, this product contains 100% USDA certified organic ingredients, has zero non-organic ingredients in the product, and any processing aids used during product production were 100% USDA certified organic.
  • USDA Organic: a product labeled as organic contains at least 95% organic ingredients. These products are also allowed to have the USDA organic seal.
  • Sometimes a product has the label “Made with organic ingredients.” According to the USDA, a product with this label must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, but watch out for that other 30%.


There are plenty of other terms to be skeptical about too. Experienced label readers look right past the banners and big type on the front and look instead for the facts in small print on the back. Even then, they remain skeptical. The key is to remember that you and your food manufacturer do not have the same goal in mind, so be smart and cautious to ensure you are filling your fridge and pantry with the best, most nutritious foods possible.

Julie Paiva
Julie Paiva
Julie is a nutritional counselor with a degree in Holistic Health Coaching from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. She also has a Bachelor’s Degree from Central Connecticut State University in Elementary Education and a Master’s Degree in Science from Southern Connecticut State University. She has been giving one-on-one coaching sessions ever since earning her degree in 2013 and is passionate about helping others implement a holistic lifestyle!

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