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What Food Labels Really Mean

For most, deciphering nutrition labels can be like reading hieroglyphics. It can be time-consuming and thankless. I'm committed to providing my readers as much accurate nutrition information as possible.
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For most, deciphering nutrition labels can be like reading hieroglyphics. It can be time-consuming and thankless. I'm committed to providing my readers as much accurate nutrition information as possible.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that less than 10 percent of participants looked at the calorie content of a nutrition label. Understandably so. There are so many confusing terms; who can be expected to keep up? In this article, I've provided you with a dictionary of the top seven common nutrition terms and exactly what they mean. Print this out and take it with you next time you're out shopping. You'll never second guess your choices again!


In order for a food label to claim that their product is high in a nutrient (e.g., high in fiber) one serving must provide 20 percent of the Daily Value. If the food contains 10-19 percent, then it's considered a good source.

Low Carb

Surprisingly, there are no set guidelines for this claim. FDA? This leaves a lot of room for misleading labeling and frivolous purchasing. Often, when a high carbohydrate food is modified to become a low-carb food, the fat and calorie content goes up. It's better to choose foods that are naturally low in carbohydrates such as nuts (in moderation), tofu and of course, vegetables.

Low Sodium

Foods that claim to be low sodium must contain 140 milligrams or less per serving. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day to prevent hypertension and risk for stroke. Needless to say, this is an important label to pay attention to!


BPA-free products have become a hot topic right now. BPA stands for bisphenol A, which is an industrial chemical used to make certain plastics, particularly those used in the food industry. The American Chemistry Council stands by their claim that products that contain BPA pose no risk to consumers, yet other associations feel differently. There are various products that are BPA-free including cans, baby products and beverage containers. I'm addicted to my Bobble, which is a completely green, self-filtering water bottle free of BPA! You'll need to replace the filter from time to time, but one filter is equal to 300 single-serve bottles.


Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are crops that have been modified in a lab to remain resistant to herbicides and increase nutritional content. Often referred to as Franken-food, this experimental farming practice represents 80 percent of the North American crops, yet 53 percent of consumers claim they wouldn't buy something that's been genetically modified. To be absolutely certain about the status of your favorite food, check out the Non-GMO Project, which provides a complete list of foods that have gone through their rigorous verification process. Large food companies are also taking the guesswork out of GMOs. Recently, Kashi released a promise that by 2014 all of their existing cereal products will be non-GMO verified if they are not already.


Not to be confused with fortified, enriched means that the nutrients have been added back into a food that may have lost them during the refining process. People often think that this means the food has additional vitamins and minerals, but that's not the case. Food companies simply put back what was once there. The most common example of this is enriched flour. During the refining process, essential B vitamins and iron are lost; therefore, they are added back in.


The fortification process means that an item has added vitamins and minerals in addition to the ones that are naturally-occurring. Plenty of foods are fortified to ensure adequate nutrition for the general population. For instance, milk is fortified with Vitamin A and D and pasta and bread with folic acid, an essential nutrient in preventing neural tube defects in infants.

My belief is that healthful, wholesome products belong in your kitchen cabinets as much as they belong in mine. That's why I created Bestowed, a monthly membership service designed to introduce you to the best, most healthy products on the market. Each month, my team and I select five products that we love and send them to you by mail. Find out more on

For more by Heather Bauer, RD, CDN, click here.

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