Decoding Labels: How to Read Your Food

The University of Southern California’s Applied Psychology Program found that only 64 percent of Americans read the nutritional facts and ingredient lists on their food. It has led food manufacturers to add more clear labeling to their products, but what do they all mean? Learning to decipher the labeling on the food at your grocery store is about being an educated consumer. Let us break it down for you: 


Organic food is produced without the use of heavy fertilizers, hormones, or other chemicals or methods that could potentially be harmful to humans or the environment. For a packaged or prepared food to have its label read “organic”, it must contain 95 percent organic ingredients. Organic vegetables and fruits lose their organic status if they even touch a conventionally grown piece of produce in
the marketplace.

100% Natural:

Natural foods do not contain artificial dyes, flavors, or ingredients. Any preservatives or ingredients used must come naturally from the Earth but ingredients may have been treated with pesticides or been genetically modified. Most items listed on the ingredient list are easy to pronounce and recognizable.

No Antibiotics:

Antibiotics are used in many animal products to protect consumers from disease and to prevent the loss of livestock to illness. Products with this labeling mean that the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics and there were no antibiotics added to the product before it hit the shelf. Organic animal products also were brought to market without the use of antibiotics.

No Hormones:

Hormones are given to animals to help them grow faster to produce bigger eggs, or more milk, or to gain weight faster to produce more meat faster than their organic counterparts. The hormones added to milk and used in raising livestock have been linked to carcinogenic effects. Young girls hitting puberty at earlier ages is a result of their continuous ingestion of hormones in their food from a very young age. Products labeled as organic also do not have added hormones.


Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains. Gluten intolerance is booming across the country and thousands are afflicted with celiac disease. Gluten is found in many different foods, items such as soy sauce, bread, pasta, and anything that uses flour as a thickening agent. To avoid the hassle of reading through the entire ingredient list, many companies have opted to label their foods Gluten Free so they can be easily recognized by those that wish to avoid gluten in their diet. However, be aware of the extra ingredients that may be added to make up for the lack of gluten.

Whole Grain:

Whole grains are essential to our fiber intake and a healthy digestive system. Whole grain means that the grain has not been stripped of its germ and bran, the outer shell that contains the most fiber. Those that have been stripped are called “enriched" grains. This process helps to reduce cooking time removes vital nutrients.

Heart Healthy:

This is an obscure label meant to help consumers to make healthier eating choices. Heart-healthy products contain only three grams or less of fat per serving and at least 0.6 grams of soluble fiber. These products are also low in fat, low in sodium, low in cholesterol, and contain no trans fats. Not all products that meet these criteria have this label, so it can’t be heavily relied upon when wanting to make healthy eating choices.


To be labeled sugar-free, a food product must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. This is valuable to diabetics and others that wish to monitor their sugar intake. Sugar is often replaced in these items by artificial sweeteners that have been linked to a variety of health issues. Although it may seem that going sugar-free may be a healthy choice it can still lead to weight gain that can cause varicose veins, heart complications, and obesity. Make sure to read the ingredient list to not be trading one evil for another. 



Pretty self-explanatory, low sodium is defined by foods that contain 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving. Many common foods contain a surprisingly high amount of sodium, like cereals and bread. For consumers who need to watch their sodium intake due to high blood pressure or high risk of stroke, this labeling makes it easier for them to choose the right foods.


Trans Fat:

A food item must contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Eating trans-fat has been found to raise bad LDL cholesterol and lower the good HDL cholesterol in your body. This increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke and developing heart disease. If not labeled with “0 grams trans-fat” make sure to read the ingredient list and avoid any products that contain hydrogenated oils, as this is one of the primary ingredients that indicates the presence of trans fat.



For an item to be considered fat-free, it must contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. Additionally, low-fat products must contain three grams of fat or less per serving, and “light” contains up to 50 percent less fat than the original product found on the shelf. Food producers often replace fat content in their products with starches and sugar to make up for the loss of flavor, so be sure to read ingredient lists to make sure the food is good for you.

Take control of your purchasing power and buy items for you and your family with the highest nutritional value available. It is best to shop for fresh, organic ingredients and minimize the amount of prepared foods you consume. To achieve this, you must read and understand the labels on the food you buy. To discover more foods you should avoid, visit Dr. Nuzum’s blog page.


Disclaimer: The products and the claims made about specific products on or through this site have not been evaluated by the United States Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease. You should not use the information on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any health problem or as a substitute for medication or other treatment prescribed by your physician or health care provider. The information provided on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advice from your physician or other health care professional or any information contained on or in any product label or packaging.