What Healthy Really Means on A Food Label

Kea Schwarz
By: Kea Schwartz 

Health conscious shoppers are attracted to “healthy” and “natural” products. The problem is, those words can be misleading to shoppers looking at those claims on a food label. Nutritional marketing is usually found on products that are high in saturated fats, sodium, and sugar. These health claims could be harming consumers by increasing their expectations of the healthiness of the product. Additionally, claims on labels have been around for a long time and it wasn’t until the 1967 Fair Package Labeling Act and the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act that required the net quantity of packaged foods to be labeled as well as standardized serving sizes and regulating the use of terms like “low fat”. Still, food manufacturers who use health claims on their products do not have to print the standard disclaimer that says “have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” That said, if a manufacturer wants to market a product as being “a good source of fiber,” but the food is also high in sodium, it needs to have a disclosure statement to the degree of “see nutritional information for saturated fat content.” Sadly, these warnings rarely discourage consumers from purchasing these products. As long as the statement on a food label isn’t recognized as a disease statement manufacturers can use these claims without the need of the FDA’s approval.1

 Some products have taken this freedom too far. Kind Bars are a perfect example of this. Last year the FDA sent a warning to Kind bars saying that the word “healthy” should be removed from the label, because it is a nut-dense bar. According to the FDA the bars “do not meet the requirements for the use of the nutrient content claim” because the bars have a high fat content. The term “healthy” can only be applied to foods that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol and a certain percent of vitamins must be present in the food. Kind has asked the FDA to revise their requirements for labeling to reflect current opinions on fat intake. This would exempt certain foods that are considered beneficial including nuts, avocados, olives, and salmon. This case shows how complex food policy and labeling can be as well as how confusing it is to consumers. 2

With all this in mind, there are easier ways to avoid false health claims. Healthy foods are those that are made with few ingredients as opposed to manufactured ingredients with unrecognizable names. Single ingredient foods like bananas, and green beans are healthy, but frozen dinners made up of quinoa, broccoli, bell peppers, and tofu can be healthy as long as they don’t contain too many additives.3 Although making good choices while grocery shopping can be difficult sticking to whole foods and pronounceable ingredients while avoiding health claims about particular ingredients on a food label can help in making healthier choices for you and your family.

What Does That Label Really Mean?

While some label definitions are regulated by the FDA, some are not — and often, it’s hard to tell the difference. Here are the claims that go unregulated by the FDA:

“Lightly sweetened”: Though terms like “sugar-free” are regulated by the FDA, this term is up to the manufacturer’s discretion.

“Natural”: While it may imply a product that is made with whole ingredients and minimal processing, the term has no legal definition. However, manufacturers have been sued by consumer groups or made to remove the term from products made with artificial ingredients.

“Made with real…”: This phrase is often used to describe products made with “real fruit” and while the product must have some fruit somewhere to not be considered misbranded, there are no limits as to how much fruit it must be “made with.”

“Multigrain”: People often see this term as synonymous with “whole grain” but it simply means that there is a mixture of grains used — none of which have to be whole.


What Does That Label Really Mean?

These labels must meet specific FDA regulations in order to appear on a food product:

“High in” or “Excellent source of”: Must have 20 percent or more of the recommended daily value of the given nutrient per serving.

“Good source of” or “Contains”: Must have 10-to-19 percent of the recommended daily value of the given nutrient per serving.

“Fortified” or “Enriched”: Can only apply to vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and potassium. Must contain 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value than a comparable food.

“Antioxidant”: To qualify as an antioxidant, a food must have a recommended daily intake, scientific evidence of antioxidant properties, and enough of the nutrient per serving to qualify as a “good source of” the antioxidant.

“Healthy”: These foods must meet a long list of requirements including being low in fat, sodium, cholesterol, and contain at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value for important nutrients like vitamin C or calcium.

“No added sugars”: While a product may contain sugar, no sweeteners were added during processing.

“Light”: Food must be low-calorie, low-fat, and have sodium content reduced by 50 percent compared to similar products.

“Low-fat”: Food must have three grams or less of fat per serving.

“Low-calorie”: Food must have 40 calories or less per serving.


  1. Danovich T. What Do Those ‘Healthy’ Food Labels Really Mean? Eater. https://www.eater.com/2015/4/29/8504677/nutrition-claims-labels-processed-food-nutrition-facts. Published April 29, 2015. Accessed May 10, 2017.
  2. Strochlic N. So What Do ‘Natural’ and ‘Healthy’ Really Mean on a Food Label? The Plate. http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/06/so-what-do-natural-and-healthy-really-mean-on-a-food-label/. Published January 6, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2017.
  3. Hatoum R. What exactly does ‘healthy’ mean when it comes to food? UCLA Newsroom. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/what-exactly-does-healthy-mean-when-it-comes-to-food. Published April 20, 2017. Accessed May 10, 2017.
  4. http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/06/so-what-do-natural-and-healthy-really-mean-on-a-food-label

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