Most of us know we could improve our health by eating more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and cutting back on sugar, salt, and bad fats. Food manufacturers know it too, and that’s why they’ll print any number of healthy-sounding claims on their labels; they know that magic words like ‘all natural’ and ‘multi-grain’ will lure you into buying their products.

Some of the claims on food packages are regulated by the FDA and actually mean something; others are just pretty adjectives that can be slapped onto any label to make a food sound healthier than it is.


Here’s how to separate truth from fiction in some of the more commonly used claims.

‘Natural.’ The FDA allows this word if a product contains no synthetic or artificial ingredients (such as food dyes). But don’t be fooled; the food can still be loaded with saturated fat and sugar, and include ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup. This is why some cookies, chips, and ice cream can be labeled ‘all natural.’

‘Made with Whole Grains.’ This means only that there is some whole grain in the product, but the FDA doesn’t require a minimum amount. Figuring out the percentage of whole grain can be tricky. If the product contains only two types of grains, look for ‘whole grain’ to be the first grain listed in the ingredients; this tells you that at least 51 percent of the total grain is whole.

If the product contains multiple grains, things can get tricky. In an eight-grain bread, for example, seven of the grains might be whole and comprise 70 percent of the product. But when those seven whole grains are listed individually (by law, manufacturers have to list each ingredient separately for allergy purposes and full disclosure), each could occur lower down on the ingredients list than the refined grain, despite the fact that the refined grain makes up just 30 percent of the total. At first glance, the bread looks like it contains more refined grain than whole.

Your best bet is to buy products that are 100 percent whole grain, and are labeled as such. Be aware, though, that ‘whole grain’ doesn’t turn junk food into healthy fare. Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs are, after all, whole grain.

‘Multi-Grain’ sure sounds healthy, but it’s meaningless if the grains aren’t whole.

‘Wheat.’ People mistake this for ‘whole wheat,’ when all it means is that the flour (usually refined, bleached, and enriched) came from the wheat plant. White bread still contains wheat.

‘Made with Real Fruit.’ The picture on the package might show a basket of ripe blueberries. But more often than not, the product is only blueberry flavored, and the ‘real fruit’ is juice or puree from cheaper fruits like apple, grape, and pear. ‘

‘Organic.’ Organic food must be certified and comply with dozens of strict regulations. (Among them: Crops must be grown without pesticides and cannot be irradiated or genetically modified; livestock must be fed organic feed and may not be given hormones or antibiotics.) Single-ingredient foods may display the USDA Organics sticker. Foods with multiple ingredients are labeled as follows: 100% Organic: All of the ingredients, including spices, are organic. Organic: 90 to 95 percent of ingredients are organic. Made with Organic: 70 to 94 percent of ingredients are organic.

Remember that organic does not necessarily mean low calorie, low fat, or low sugar. An organic cookie is still a cookie.

‘Hearty,’ ‘Country,’ ‘Farm-Fresh,’ and ‘Wholesome’ are all pretty adjectives, but meaningless.

‘Fat Free’ and ‘Low Fat’ are regulated terms meaning that a food contains 0.5 g or 3 g (or less) of total fat, respectively, per serving. The food can still be very high in calories and loaded with sugar, refined grains, artificial ingredients, and food dyes.

‘Zero Grams Trans Fat’ or ‘Trans Fat Free.’ A huge FDA loophole allows companies to make this claim if a food contains less than a half-gram of trans fat per serving. This is unbelievably deceptive and creates a number of problems. First, it leads people to believe they are getting absolutely no trans fat, which is not true. Second, people often eat more than one serving, especially when the ‘serving size’ is ridiculously small. When you eat a bowl of ice cream, for example, do you measure out only a half-cup (the equivalent of two golf balls)? ‘

Third, no amount of trans fat is healthy; two grams a day is considered the limit, and some doctors think even that is too much. Trans fat is more harmful than saturated fat and takes months to clear out of your system. If you add up the trans fat in all those servings of ‘trans fat free’ food, you could be getting a lot more of the unhealthy fat than you think. Ironically, if you see this claim on a product it’s usually a red flag that trans fat is, indeed, present. Check the ingredients for ‘partially hydrogenated oil.’ If it’s there, the product contains trans fat.

‘X Servings of Fruit and Vegetables!’ Companies are adding pureed fruits and veggies into products, ostensibly to make their products more nutritious. But the picture on the package may not have much to do with the actual fruits and veggies inside. What’s more, the rest of the product may be high in salt, sugar, and refined flour.

The Bottom Line. If you want to know what’s really in a product, ignore the fancy words and pictures on the front of the package and go straight to the ingredients list. When choosing between two similar products, use the nutritional facts label to compare calories, salt, sugar, and fat content. Choose ‘100 percent whole grain’ products when possible, but make sure the rest of the ingredients aren’t junk. And if you’re aiming to increase your daily servings of fruits and veggies, head to the produce aisle. There’s no better way to get your fruits and veggies than by eating the real thing.

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  • Linda Lindsay

    Linda Lindsay has been writing health articles for Moonshine Ink since 2003. She has a degree in natural resources from Colorado State University, and has worked for the Yosemite Institute, Outward Bound, the Park Service, and Forest Service. She came to Tahoe in 1984 to check it out for a winter and never left. She lives in the Prosser area with her husband, daughter, two dogs, and a cat.

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