Decoding Food Labels: 9 Terms You Should Know

All-natural. Non-GMO. Low-sodium. Gluten-free.

Seems like you need an advanced degree and a dictionary to read food packaging labels. What do all those terms mean? Are they regulated? What can food manufacturers honestly claim about their products? And how can we use these key words and phrases to make healthy choices?

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration largely regulates what’s communicated on food packaging, and how those messages are worded. If you want to dig deeply into the what’s and how’s of food labeling, here’s a good place to start.

FDA categorizes three different types of claims that can be made on a food package:

  • Health claims. These are generic statements about the role of a particular nutrient in health or disease. FDA cites this example: Adequate calcium and vitamin D as part of a healthful diet, along with physical activity, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in later life.

  • Nutrient claims. These are statements that compare the presence of a certain nutrient in a product to other similar products. Like: High in calcium.
  • Structure/function claims. These connect nutrients to health outcomes. Like this: Calcium builds strong bones.
Within the framework of these labeling claims — and in other copy that appears on food packaging — manufacturers try to sell you on the benefits of their products. Some common label terms — like organic — are legally defined. Others, not so much. So let’s try to wade into some of this language:


This one’s pretty easy, because there’s a USDA guideline for organic products. A helpful definition of organic from USDA:
Certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.
Organic processed food must be free of artificial preservatives, colors or flavors, and must be made entirely of organic ingredients. Organic meat must come from animals that are raised in humane conditions, fed organic feed and free from antibiotics or hormones.


This one’s tricky, because the FDA is still working through the lengthy regulatory process to define natural. In the meantime, it defines natural foods as having nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives) added.


Again, FDA has guidelines for foods labeled gluten free. These foods must be:
  1. inherently gluten free (it does NOT contain wheat or related grains)
  2. free of ingredients derived from gluten-containing grain that have not been processes to remove that gluten
  3. free of ingredients processed to remove gluten if more than 20 parts per million of gluten remains in the food
 If gluten is a serious health concern for you or your family, look for products labeled with graphic icons from the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, Celiac Support Association or similar groups.


The issue of genetic modification in food is ripe for debate, and the science is either definitive or unclear, depending on who you talk to. (The question about what genetic modification is and why it matters is complicated enough for another article.) Still, food manufacturers are responding to public demand for GMO labeling. While FDA has not yet addressed GMO labeling on food packages, you can look for the “NON GMO” graphic to identify products independently verified to be made from unmodified ingredients.

Whole grain

Here, too, the FDA has yet to regulate a definition. It pays to be a smart label-reader to see through packaging hype. Look for whole grain as the first ingredient in the product, and you’re reasonably assured that the food is high in whole, unprocessed grain. Look for the 100% Whole Grain stamp to be sure.


FDA requires that foods labeled such have one-third fewer calories or 50% less fat, or 50% less sodium than a comparable product. But beware: Lite does not necessarily mean low-calorie. During the lite food craze of the late 1980s, when these foods became wildly popular, people managed to overconsume calories and gain weight because they thought they were eating “diet” products. Remember SnackWells?
Descriptors like lite, low-sodium and low-fat can be misleading in that they don’t necessarily mean that a food is low in calories. (Food manufacturers often add fat to replace sugar, or sugar to replace sodium in order to make their products tasty.) Remember that potato chips may be labeled gluten free, but they’re not a particularly healthy food choice.
Whenever you’re shopping the grocery aisles for packaged food, you’re smart to look beyond the descriptive copy on the front of the box or bag, and go straight to the Nutrition Facts box and the ingredient list. See this Healthspirations article about how to read the Nutrition Facts on food packages

Bryn Mooth is the author of the Findlay Market Cookbook, the editor of Edible Ohio Valley  magazine, and she also publishes a website called She loves cooking tasty and uncomplicated dishes, cultivating a small vegetable garden and shopping at the Tristate area's many local farmers markets. Saturday mornings, you'll find Bryn at Findlay Market bright and early, doing much of her grocery shopping for the week. She's pleased to be partnering with Healthspirations to share her recipes, how-tos and information about eating healthfully in Cincinnati!