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Food label lingo: What you need to know

If you’re trying to eat healthier this year, it’s time to start reading those food labels. But the terms they use on the front of those packages can be a bit deceiving.

Woman reading labels in cereal aisle

Before you hit the store grabbing every “reduced-fat” or “all-natural” version of your favorite products, find out what those terms really mean.

Reduced fat

Reduced-fat products do have fewer calories from fat (at least 25 percent less fat than their counterparts), but that doesn’t make them a diet food. It doesn’t do the manufacturer any good to make a product everyone thinks tastes like cardboard. Often, these products have extra sugar to make them taste better. Since sugar processes so quickly in your body, a reduced-fat version that has extra sugar may actually sabotage your diet. Before you buy, compare the food labels directly to find out.

Low fat / fat free

Low-fat and fat-free products are exactly what they say they are. Low-fat products have three grams of fat or fewer and fat-free items have less than 0.5 grams. That doesn’t automatically make them good for you, though. Check the sugar and sodium contents, too.


Products labeled “light” are just that. But be careful, nonetheless. The term could mean that it’s lighter than a similar food (light yogurt, for example). But some products come in light varieties. You can buy light or dark olive oil, but they both have the same number of calories. Lighter-colored olive oil just has different cooking applications than its darker brother.

All natural

All-natural products haven’t been through extreme processing procedures, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re healthier. They may still be high in sodium or have a high fat content. You can buy all-natural lard, after all.

Cholesterol free

Cholesterol-free foods have fewer than two milligrams of cholesterol per serving. But many foods labeled “cholesterol free” never would’ve had cholesterol anyway, as cholesterol is only found in animal products (animal fat, meats, eggs and milk). Before you automatically pick up the potentially higher-priced (or higher-fat or higher-sugar) cholesterol-free product, compare it with similar products.

Whole grain

We should all get more whole grain in our diets, but there’s a difference between products made with 100 percent whole grain and those simply made with whole grain. Check the ingredients. Even if it’s made with whole grain, it could be highly processed “enriched” whole grain flour. Look for “whole wheat flour” and for products that have at least three grams of fiber.

Before you buy

Before you buy any product with an appealing claim on the front, look up its definition on your smartphone. The claims on the front are there to get you to choose one product over another, not necessarily to help you make better choices.

More about nutrition labels:

Nutrition labels 101: Keeping kids healthy
How to choose healthy packaged foods

Health foods that aren’t healthy

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