Food Labels and What They Actually Mean

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Reviewed by: Casey Seiden, MS, RD, CDN, CDE

If you’ve ever tried to be health conscious in the coffee creamer aisle, for example, you know that it can feel overwhelming trying to find the right one. You’ll likely see claims like “fat-free”, “low-calorie”, and “no added sweeteners.” On the surface, it all seems well and good, but it’s important to know that these claims may not be telling the whole story. When solely relying on the front-of-package labeling, you may be overlooking important nutrition information that can impact your health. Here’s what to know about how to navigate the supermarket for the products that are as healthy as they say they are.

What are food labels? Aren’t they regulated?

It’s extremely important to distinguish that food labels are not the same as nutrition labels. Nutrition labels are the white and black print on most products that break down things like serving size, calories, and nutrients. These are tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Food labels, on the other hand, often include marketing statements on packaging that advertise things like “sugar-free” or “low-calorie”. These things are not regulated, and some large food companies have even come under fire from the FDA for false advertising.

One common misconception is that labels like “fat-free” means that it’s healthier than the alternative product. In fact, statements like “fat-free” or “low-fat” means that it’s high in other unhealthy ingredients. Here’s what to know about these common labels.

Fat-Free or Low-Fat

A product that says it’s “low-fat” or “fat-free” means that it has a very small amount of fat (3 grams or less of total fat per serving, in fact) according to the FDA’s regulations. But, “low-fat” foods can still contain high amounts of fat when compared to the original product. It’s even common that these foods are high in calories from added sugars to preserve the taste. So, you can expect these foods to contain more sugar than you might want to consume. This is what we suspect contributed to a spike in weight gain in the 80s and 90s when it was thought that fat was the contributing factor for obesity in many foods, not the added sugars that took its place.

Sugar-Free or Reduced-Sugar

When making food, it can be difficult to produce the same sweetness of sugar by taking it away. Consider if you made chocolate chip cookies without any sugar. They probably wouldn’t taste as good, right? In sugar-free or reduced-sugar products, sugar substitutes are often what makes them taste sweet enough to pass for the original version. The more we learn about sugar substitutes, the more we learn that they may cause harm to our health in other ways, such as changes to our gut microbiome or greater taste preference for sweet things. This could ultimately contribute to weight gain since many people think that “sugar-free” means it has fewer calories. This isn’t always the case!

Natural, Fresh, and Organic

Although these labels don’t have as much impact on your health, they can still be misleading. “Natural” has no formal meaning according to the FDA, so virtually any product can claim this. However, “Fresh” and “Organic” have stricter guidelines. For example, “Organic” products must comply with specific manufacturing guidelines where animals are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Additionally, plants cannot be grown with certain pesticides or fertilizers. Certain farming techniques are also forbidden. There are three tiers of “Organic” foods, including 100% Organic (entirely organic ingredients), “organic” (95% organic ingredients), and “made with organic ingredients” (70% organic ingredients.

Additionally, “Fresh” may not mean it’s actually fresh. This label means that the food must be raw and unprocessed, as well as never been frozen or heated. “Fresh” does not mean that it was recently picked or placed for sale in the store, meaning you should wash these products and follow food safety guidelines as you would any other.


There’s a lot of debate about genetically modified foods and their safety, but it’s important to know what you’re getting when you look for “Non-GMO” foods at the store. Corn and soy are two of the most common genetically modified foods and serve as ingredients in a vast number of products. This means it can be extremely difficult to find truly “Non-GMO” products, except for food in its whole form. Genetically modified foods do not need to be labeled according to the FDA, and it’s also become common for companies to use the “Non-GMO” label on products that don’t even have a GMO counterpart (think orange juice), which is misleading. If choosing non-GMO products is important to you, try looking for “100% Organic” foods since genetic modification falls under the list of techniques that are not allowed for organic farming.

Schedule an Appointment

It can feel like a balancing act trying to find the foods that fit your lifestyle and dietary needs. Our Dietitian can provide more guidance on reading food and nutrition labels and discuss how to build a diet pattern that works for you. To get started, we invite you to contact our New York City office by calling or filling out our online form.

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