Government regulations—or lack thereof—guide what can and can't be said on packages. Here's a primer.
Specific health claims—such as "lowers cholesterol"—are usually carefully regulated, but health implications made on food labels are another matter, practiced in the red-hot area where clever language tickles the buying impulse.
Claim: "Added Fiber"
These days, fiber is the "it" additive, found not only in places you'd expect, like oatmeal and lentils, but also in things like yogurt and ice cream.
Bottom line: There's nothing wrong with added fibers like inulin, polydextrose, and maltodextrin. Just bear in mind that they don't yet have the same back-catalog of proven benefits as fiber found naturally in foods like whole grains, beans, and fruits.
With no formal FDA definition, this term can mean pretty much anything. Genetically modified foods can claim natural rights, as can "minimally processed" chicken injected with salty broth.
Bottom line: It's up to you to define natural. Scan the ingredients. Keep in mind that names for some additives—such as ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C) or carrageenan (a thickener made from seaweed)—sound more off-putting than they actually are.
Claim: "Made with Whole Grains"
Does not mean "made exclusively with whole grains." No regulations govern the specific percentage. The rest of the ingredients could be refined flour.
Bottom line: The Whole Grain Stamp requires at least 8g whole grains per serving, so it's a good guide. You want tasty food that gets you closer to the daily goal of 48g.
Claim: "Made with Real Fruit"
Some seemingly fruity foods may contain as little as 2% real fruit. Or the fruit may be juice concentrate, a form of sugar.
Bottom line: Check the ingredients to see how far down the "real" fruit falls on the list.
Claim: "Immunity Boosting"
This claim is driven by studies that link, say, vitamin C with avoiding a cold. Problem is, the subjects in most tests likely weren't given their boosters in food form.
Bottom line: The foods most likely to support immunity—fresh, whole ones—don't have any labels at all.
Claim: "Hint of Sugar" or "Lightly Sweetened"
These terms don't necessarily point to foods that are low in sugar. Some "lightly sweetened" whole-grain cereals contain up to 17g sugar per serving—5g more than you'll find in many candy-colored children's cereals.
Bottom line: The amount of sugar listed in the Nutrition Facts panel will tell you how lightly sweetened the food really is. Context: The American Heart Association recommends limiting your added-sugar intake to 25g and 38g per day for women and men, respectively.
Claim: "Made with Organic Ingredients"
Regulations are in place for this one, as of 2002. Here, "made with" means that products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. The other 30% is up for grabs, though.
Bottom line: The official USDA Organic seal appears only on foods that are 100% organic.
Claim: "Enriched" or "Fortified"
"Enriched" means that nutrients removed during processing have been added back to the food. "Fortified" means that nutrients not naturally present in the food have been added, like vitamin D in milk.
Bottom line: Neither is harmful, and fortification is handy, but enriching is generally no substitute for the full array of nutrients found in whole foods.
Claim: "Trans Fat Free"
Foods making this claim can still contain up to half a gram of trans fat for each serving, per FDA guidelines.
Bottom line: If partially hydrogenated oils are on the ingredient list, artificial trans fats are in the product. With a 2g per day limit, even a hidden half-gram can count. So read the label, and make the call.