Walk into any grocery store and you’ll find products boasting a wide range of health claims. Some foods are labeled “enriched” while others are labeled “fortified,” “all-natural,” or “gluten-free” in an effort to appeal to health-conscious consumers. But what do these terms really mean? While some food label claims are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), others are just gimmicks to get you to buy the products.
Decoding Food Label Claims at the Grocery Store
Before purchasing a product, be sure to read all the ingredients, regardless of what the front of the package says. The healthiest South Beach Diet–friendly products will contain few processed ingredients, no saturated or trans fats, and small amounts of added sugars. Take whole-wheat crackers, for example. The first ingredient listed should be 100% whole-wheat flour — not to be confused with wheat flour, which is a form of white flour. To help you make the best food choices, here are the facts on some of the most common food claims:
The facts: “Enriched” means that the nutrients that were originally in the food and lost during the refining process have been replaced to make it more nutritious. Enriched foods don’t compensate for the natural nutrients and fiber that were lost during processing, however.
The facts: Foods that are “fortified” have nutrients added (such as vitamins and minerals) that were never present in the original product. For example, milk is fortified with vitamin D, which it doesn’t naturally have when it comes out of the cow.
The Facts: Beware of foods labeled “all-natural” or “100% natural.” The FDA and USDA don’t regulate products with these claims. That's why the labels “all-natural” and “100% natural” actually don’t mean much on a food label. A manufacturer can take anything that grows in nature, process and strip it of its nutrients, and still claim that it’s “all-natural.” According to the FDA, it does "not object to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances." But so-called "natural" foods can still contain a wide range of processed sweeteners, lab-produced "natural" flavors and colors, additives, and preservatives. You can try to determine whether a product is truly made with “all-natural” ingredients by reading the ingredients list and using your best judgment.
The Facts: Gluten is a protein found primarily in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, and in products made from these grains. People with celiac disease cannot tolerate any gluten in their diet, and people with a gluten sensitivity must determine just how much gluten, if any, they can have without health problems. In August 2013, the FDA issued a rule defining what characteristics a food product must have in order to bear a “gluten-free” label. This ruling also holds foods labeled “without gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “no gluten” to the same standard. As part of the criteria for using the “gluten-free” label, the FDA set a gluten limit of less than 20 ppm (parts per million) for food products that carry this label. Manufacturers who choose to use the term had until August 2014 to comply with the standard. To enforce the labeling law, the FDA may perform food label review, follow-up on consumer and industry complaints, and analyze food samples. Consumers and manufacturers may report a complaint to an FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator in the state where the food was purchased.