Food Labels That May Sound Legitimate, But Aren't

Health Professional

Is it worth the extra cost to purchase products with labels touting natural, organic, GMO-free, and so on? In many cases, you are likely wasting dollars.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified and defined three categories of claims that can be used on labels. The three categories are health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure/function claims.

Health claims relate a connection between a food or ingredient and disease risk. For example, an approved health claim would be foods high in calcium and vitamin D claiming “helps promote bone health”.

Nutrient content claims reflect the quantity of a nutrient in food. For example, fat free is a nutrient content claim, as is the term “lite” which reflects a comparison to another food.

Structure/function claims describe the role between a nutrient to a nutrient deficiency disease. For example, the statement “fiber maintains bowel regularity”. There are additional parameters around using these claims, such as including disclaimers or additional information on the labels.

It all boils down to companies trying to get your hard earned dollars by using labels to entice you into purchasing. It can cause a whole lot of confusion as we try to decipher these claims.

Here are some of the most prevalent claims.

Natural, healthy, wholesome, and nutritious

Terms like these lead us to believe the food is going to be good for our health. However, the terms have not been defined by the FDA. The FDA currently allows the claim “natural” as long as the food doesn’t contain added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic ingredients.

That leaves a whole lot of wiggle room for manufacturers to place the label on foods that may not be healthy choices. For example, Nestle received complaints for using “Juicy Juice All Natural 100% Juice” when juice was not the main ingredient.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are ubiquitous in our food supply. A majority of all corn and soybeans produced in the United States are genetically modified. Based on current data, the FDA considers GMOs to be safe and leaves the label claims up to the companies. Some states are starting to require disclosure of GMOs on labels and there is current work on a new label, “USDA Process Verified”, that may be used in the future to reflect a food is not genetically modified and/or does not contain genetically modified ingredients.


There is currently widespread use and production of products claiming to be gluten-free. A very “hot” term because many people feel the bloating, nausea, headaches, and pain. they experience is connected to the gluten in their diet.

Did you know only about 1 percent of the US has celiac disease, resulting in sickness when even a little gluten is consumed?

There is debate over the need for so many gluten-free options and who really sees benefits from a gluten-free diet. There’s even some recent research indicating it might not be gluten, but a type of carbohydrate, causing some of the symptoms people are trying to alleviate by going gluten-free.

Unfortunately, the gluten-free label does not often equal a healthy food choice. Many gluten free products contain added sugar and fat and do not make a good addition to a heart healthy diet.

On the plus side, the FDA does regulate this label to ensure products claiming to be gluten-free are actually gluten-free.


Organic foods must come from animals raised with room to graze. The animals cannot receive hormones or antibiotics. Organic produce must be grown without pesticides or fertilizer.

The label organic is regulated, but there are different levels to the claims and seals.

The USDA organic seal means the food is 95% or more organic and the USDA has certified the food met requirements.

Then there are processed foods that can state that the food is made with organic ingredients if at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic.

What to do

Label claims cause unneeded confusion as you take steps to implement a heart healthy diet. So, one of the best sources when shopping is the ingredient list. The ingredient list is required by the FDA on products to reflect ingredients in descending order based on quantity. If it is a juice box and juice is not one of the first three ingredients, put it back and look for another option. If it claims to be healthy and sodium is one of the top three ingredients, put it back. If you see a hydrogenated ingredient, a term meaning it contains trans fats which we know are detrimental to heart health, put it back.

Lisa Nelson is a dietitian/nutritionist with a genetic predisposition for high cholesterol and heart disease.She guides clients to lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels through practical diet and lifestyle changes. Learn more and sign up to receive How to Make Heart Healthy Changes into Lifelong Habits at