Decoding 5 common food label claims

Nutrition claims on food packaging can be enticing - and sometimes misleading. Here’s what five of the most common claims actually mean:

While the jury is still out regarding the advantages of eating organic, you are more likely to benefit from fresh-grown organic foods (fruits and vegetables) than from processed organic foods. When buying processed foods note that there are three levels of organic claims. Look for products that read 100 percent organic, which means they are made with 100 percent certified organic ingredients.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not strictly regulate the term “natural,” so don’t expect any definitive nutritional benefits from products bearing this designation. A product touted as “natural” may indeed be a healthy choice or it may not have any redeeming qualities at all. To get the best nutrition from the foods you buy compare brands by their nutrition facts, looking at total calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, and fiber per serving.

The government does not mandate genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling, but the Non-GMO Project fills that gap by providing labels for legitimate GMO-free products. GMOs are generally regarded as safe, but critics contend that non-GMO foods are more nutritious and tastier. Further research is required to confirm any nutritional disparities between GMO and non-GMO options. The same guidelines apply for GMO-free foods as for natural foods, so to gauge a product’s nutrition quality always check the nutrition facts label.

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, is present in processed foods that are made with these grains or a derivative. Strict gluten-free foods, which contain less than 20 parts per million, are an absolutely necessity for anyone diagnosed with celiac disease, and they may be helpful for those with gluten sensitivity. Keep in mind that some gluten-free products such as cookies are high in calories and fat. Removing the gluten from food products does not make them any healthier or more diet-friendly.

Per the FDA, products making “sugar-free” claims must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. Remember that sugar-free does not mean calorie or carbohydrate free. It’s still easy to gain weight by overeating foods billed as sugar-free.

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