Nutrition labels are meant to give you all the information you need to make an informed decision on the nutritional quality of your food. The nutrition facts labels are regulated by the government, and are unbending in their honesty. The labeling on the front, however, isn’t so strict, and can be manipulated to make you think the food is healthier than it actually is. Marketing: it’s tricky, and it works- unless you are an informed consumer. Here’s what you need to know about label buzzwords:

Fat-Free: In order to call a food item “fat free” it needs to have less than 0.5 grams of fat per labeled serving. First off, fat isn’t terrible, you need it, it just needs to be watched, so picking fat free over a full fat option isn’t automatically necessary. It’s also a huge marketing ploy. Perfect example? Candy. Skittles, Lemonheads and most non-chocolate candy emblazon FAT FREE FOOD! across the front of their labels. It’s true, they are low enough in fat to call themselves fat free, but candy is hardly a healthy food choice. There’s no fat in cement either- doesn’t mean you should eat it.

All-natural: All natural means basically nothing. Natural is a term that sounds healthy, so it’s used to make things sound more pure, rustic and whole, but in truth, it means very little. According to the USDA, food can only be labeled natural if it contains no artificial ingredients, added colors and is minimally processed. Vague, vague, vague. Don’t rest on the All-Natural label alone.

Multigrain: Most people think whole grain when they see “multigrain” on a package. Multigrain just means made with multiple types of grains, but those grains can still be just as processed as a slice of white Wonder bread. Same with “made with whole grains”. Some of those grains are whole, but some of them are processed, too. The best way to know if something is whole grain is if the front says 100% whole grain or of the first word on the ingredient list is whole.

Organic: Organic refers to the way the ingredients were treated and raised. Organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation, and organic animal products like meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy means the animals do not take antibiotics or growth hormones. There are two labels for organic: 100% organic and organic. The 100% organic label means that products can only contain organically produced ingredients. Organic means that 95% of the ingredients listed must be organically grown. While it is true that organic food is healthier for you than foods coated in pesticides and grown with chemicals, the actual nutrition content of the food stays the same. An organic apple does not have more fiber or vitamins than an non-organic apple, but it is healthier in terms of the purity and quality of the food. If you don’t want to suck down chemicals, go for organic. I think it tastes better, too.

Is this all still too confusing? The simplest way to cut through the clutter is to not have to worry about it by not buying packaged foods. Ever see “All Natural” scrawled across the front of an avocado? No, because with an avocado, all you get is avocado. Ingredients: avocado. Source: the ground.

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