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Let's Talk Labels

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Nutrition labels that is.

Nutrition labeling first came about in 1944, but up until 1966 any nutrition information displayed on an item was considered by the FDA to be for “special dietary uses”. This was because most meals at the time were cooked at home with simple ingredients, and there wasn’t really a demand for nutrition information. As more and more processed foods began showing up on shelves, consumers started asking for more information. In 1969 the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health recommended that the FDA develop a system making this information available to consumers.

The FDA worked to create this system and in 1973 debuted the first version of the nutrition label. It was required to include the number of calories, protein, carbohydrate, fat; and percent RDA of protein, vitamins A and C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, and iron. Manufacturers could also choose to disclose sodium, saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Sounds pretty similar to what we use today, right?

Throughout the 70s, knowledge of how diet affects health grew and resulted in consumers still wanting to know more about the food they were buying. This led to manufacturers putting a plethora of undefined claims on their products in order to grab consumer attention, both about the nutritional content and health benefits. While some claims explicitly discussing disease or health were prohibited by the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, some manufacturers were careful to skirt around it. The beginning of regulated claims on food packaging began in August of 1987, when the FDA published a proposed rule to change its policy by permitting health claims on food labeling if certain criteria were met. In 1990 replaced that original proposal with one that more narrowly defined health claims and laid out a specific set of criteria that needed to be met.

Around this time the FDA was also revamping other aspects of the nutrition labeling such as policies on food fortification, sodium and cholesterol content, and weight maintenance, as well as defining the Daily Reference Values that we see on labels today. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, passed in 1990, amended the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, giving explicit authority to the FDA to require nutrition labeling on most packaged foods and specifying the nutrients to be listed in the nutrition label. This was the start of a labeling overhaul that has eventually landed us to where we are today.

While many nutrient and health claims found on foods are now explicitly defined by the FDA, there are still a few claims that I want to clear up.


Natural is probably the most commonly used undefined claim. In 2015, the FDA surveyed consumers on what they considered the term to mean, but they have yet to release specific criteria that needs to be met for use. As of now, manufacturers can use this as they please. Just know when you see this on a package, it doesn’t mean anything specific and is not regulated.


The term organic is closely regulated by the USDA, which provides an extensive list of allowed and prohibited substances allowed in organic food production. For a product to be labeled “organic,” it must be made with 95% organic ingredients. If the label says “made with organic ingredients,” the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients. Contrary to popular belief, organic food production still uses pesticides, herbicides and other synthetic substances for cleaning and sanitizing. While organic farmers use mostly “natural” chemicals, that tells us nothing about its safety, and organic foods are allowed to have pesticide residues of up to 5% of the EPA tolerance. As with anything and everything, the dose makes the poison.

I also want to point out that just because a product is organic, does not mean it is any healthier for you than the non-organic option, in fact, nutritionally they’re identical (environmentally is a different story). Organic sugar is still sugar and too much will have the same effect on the body. The danger with the assumption that we need to be buying organic food is that it is more expensive, and not everyone has the luxury to afford organic products. I’ve had conversations with individuals who wouldn’t buy produce at all because they couldn’t afford the organic option, but I would much rather someone eat conventional fruits and vegetables than none at all.


All organic foods are non-GMO, but not all non-GMO products are organic. This term is modulated by the Non-GMO project, which is an independent organization that offers GMO test verification and labeling. Manufacturers pay to have this testing done and earn the ability to use this logo. It is important to note that there are only 10 GMO crops grown and sold in the United States:

  1. Alfalfa

  2. Apples

  3. Canola

  4. Corn

  5. Cotton

  6. Papaya

  7. Potatoes

  8. Soybeans

  9. Summer squash

  10. Sugar beets

If a product is labeled “non-GMO,” but does not contain any of these ingredients, then the brand is likely using the term as a marketing ploy to get you to spend more money, and they often succeed.


Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. For a product to be labeled gluten-free, it must contain less than 20 parts per million gluten. Foods that are inherently gluten-free, such as fruits and vegetables, can also bear that label.


This means exactly what it says. The tells us how the animal was NOT raised, but this says nothing about how the animal WAS raised or its diet.

"Free Range"

Free-range poultry must have access to an outdoor area for at least 6 hours a day, and each hen must have at least 2 square feet.

"Pasture Raised"

Birds must be in a pasture for at least 6 hours a day, each hen must have 108 square feet and the pasture must be covered with living vegetation.


The American Grassfed symbol means the animal has been fed only grass and forage once weaned from milk, they've been raised on a pasture without confinement and have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.

"100% Whole Wheat"

For a product to bear this label, it has to be made with solely whole grains. If a product is labeled "whole wheat" it contains whole grains but is not entirely whole grain, and "multigrain" simply means it was made with multiple grains, and may or may not contain whole grains.

"Heart healthy"

This is a certification based on the American Heart Association's recommendations. Product's bearing this claim have to first meet FDA regulations for a heart disease health claim, then meet specific requirements of the Heart Check program for fat, cholesterol, sodium, fiber and sugar.

"Raised without antibiotics"

If you see this on a label, it's being used to mean to the animal was not given antibiotics at any point in its life. It's important to know that the USDA prohibits the presence of antibiotics in an animal's system at the time of slaughter. If a farmer chooses to use antibiotics to treat their animals, an FDA-approved withdrawal period is observed before the animal is allowed to enter the food supply.

"No synthetic hormones"

This means that the animal received no synthetic hormones during its life, however, animals are living beings with their own hormones, so no animal products are truly "hormone-free".

As a side note: federal law prohibits the use of hormones on hogs and poultry to begin with, so there's no need to pay extra for the presence of that label on pork and poultry products.

Nutrient Claims

Nutrient claims characterize the level of a nutrient in the food, and have specific requirements that need to be met in order to be used on a product label. **You can check out an extensive list of these claims and their definitions below.

Health Claims

Health claims characterize the relationship of a food or food component to a disease or health-related condition. For a food to bear a health claim, it must be associated with a health-related condition for which a specific subgroup or the general US population as a whole is at risk. Health claims are reviewed and approved by the FDA once determined that there is a significant scientific consensus that the claim is supported by evidence. Companies must file a petition in order to obtain authority to use the claim, and all information relating to the claim must be found in a single spot on the packaging. Examples of health claims include:

  • “A diet low in total fat may reduce the risk of some cancers”

  • “Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure”

  • “Diets low in saturated fat may reduce the risk of heart disease”

Structure/Function Claims

Structure/function claims describe the effect that a nutrient has on the structure or function of the body, such as “calcium builds strong bones” or the means by which a nutrient acts to maintain a structure or function, such as “fiber maintains bowel regularity”. These are not pre-approved by the FDA, but rather the manufacturer must substantiate their claim, proving it is truthful and not misleading and they must submit a notification with the wording of the claim to FDA within 30 days. If a dietary supplement label includes such a claim, it must state the disclaimer that “the FDA has not evaluated the claim” and that it is “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”.

Industry Labels

In addition to the terms regulated by the FDA, individual companies have created their own labels for their products. Front-of-label marketing is voluntary, and although they’re intended to identify a healthier choice, the arbitrary nutritional criteria for them is solely used to catch your eye and get you to buy their product. Their goal is to advertise on the front what they choose, so you’re less likely to turn the package around and read the nutrition label.

So How Can You Navigate Labels?

Labels can be confusing, and marketing departments have gotten creative with how they make their product stand out on the shelf. While there are requirements for many claims used on products, the claim itself doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better for you. Something labeled “light” may have less fat or calories, but it also might have more sugar or sodium than the original in order to make up for the missing flavor. If you’re someone with diabetes or high blood pressure, the “light” version wouldn’t be the better option. Plus, low-calorie does not equate to healthy.

My best advice for you is to get familiar with your own body’s needs, ignore all the flashy advertising and go straight to the nutrition facts panel if you want information on the product. Remember, one size does not fit all when it comes to nutrition, but you’ll never see that on your box of Cheerios.

Until next time,


**Nutrient Claims**

“Excellent source of,” “High,” or “rich in,”

  • The food must contain at least 20% of the daily recommended value of the nutrient

“Good source of,” “contains,” or “provides”

  • The food must contain 10-19% of the daily recommended value of the nutrient

“Light” or “lite”

  • Either ⅓ less calories or 50% less fat than a similar reference food

Calorie content

  • “Calorie free”: < 5 calories per labeled serving

  • “Low calorie”: 40 calories or less per labeled serving

  • “Reduced calorie”: at least 25% fewer calories than a similar reference food

Fat content

  • “Fat free”: <0.5g per serving

  • “Low fat”: <3g per serving

  • “Reduced fat”: at least 25% less than a similar reference food

  • “Lean”: <10g total fat, <4.5g saturated fat and <95 mg cholesterol per serving

  • “Extra lean”: <5g total fat, <2g saturated fat and <95 mg cholesterol per serving

Sodium content

  • “Sodium free”: <5mg per serving

  • “Low sodium”: <140mg per servings

  • “Reduced sodium”: at least 25% less than a similar reference food

  • “Lightly salted”: contains 50% less sodium than is normally added

  • “No salt added” or “unsalted”: no additional salt was added, but the product must declare “this is not a sodium free food” is it isn’t sodium free

Sugar content:

  • “Sugar free”: <0.5g per serving

  • “Reduced sugar”: at least 25% less than a similar reference food

  • “No added sugar”: no sugar was added during processing

Antioxidant claims

  • The nutrient subject to the claim must have an RDI, have scientific evidence of antioxidant activity, the level must meet the definition for “high,” “good source,” or “more” and the name of the nutrient must be a part of the claim


  • For individual products: must be low fat, low saturated fat, <480mg sodium per serving and contain at least 10% of the daily value of vitamins A, C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber

  • For meat: <5g fat, <2g saturated fat, <480mg sodium, <95mg cholesterol and contain at least 10% daily value of vitamins A, C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber.


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