What product labels really mean

Think buying products labelled "all natural," "low fat" and "organic" means you're eating healthily? Maybe not. We help you decode the terms on everyday food product labels to make your next trip to the grocery store easier

By Zoe Cormier

What product labels really mean

Have you ever stood in the grocery store aisle staring blankly at a product wondering, Is this thing healthy, or not? Product labelling can make it tough to evaluate foods. What do all those terms listed on your favourite box of cereal or soda crackers really mean?

Labelling in Canada

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requires that most products sold in Canada display a label that shows the product name, a list of ingredients and a Nutrition Facts table. These tables are the standardized, non-branded white lists of information that contain nutritional values, such as the grams of protein per serving or the amount of calories as a percentage of your daily intake.

But the ingredients and Nutrition Facts can be difficult to follow (what is xantham gum, anyway?) and easy to ignore. Far more noticeable are the bright and branded flags on the front of a package, such as "fat-free" or "all natural".

Under the Food and Drugs Act, manufacturers are prevented from making false claims about a product’s nutritional values or health benefits. However, that doesn’t mean food labels always give you information in a straightforward way, says Doug Cook, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. "A lot of these are not very useful, and sometimes they can actually give you a false sense of security," he says.

Here, we help you decode some popular terms used on food labels. Print this out and pack it in your shopping bag on your next trip to the grocery store.

All Natural

If a product is labeled as containing "all-natural" ingredients, that means that those ingredients have to be identical to how they would be found in nature—so an ìall naturalî strawberry flavour has to have come from a real strawberry, and not synthesized in a lab.

But a product that contains contains "all-natural" ingredients isn't necessarly healthy.

"Something might be made with natural flavours, but the product could still be absolute garbage," says Cook.
For example, you might see a bottle of juice with a label that reads, "made with 100 percent all-natural fruit juice," but upon closer inspection, you may find that just five percent of its total content is real fruit juice. Or, popsicles labeled, "made with real fruit," may be made with real strawberries, but they might still be loaded with sugar, preservatives and artificial food colourings.

"It may not be lying, but this is designed to mislead, let’s face it," says Cook. "The label ‘all natural’ for me doesn’t mean anything, I’m more interested in the actual state of a product—how processed it is. "All-natural" instant oats, for example, may be made entirely from real oats, but may have also been ground, milled and processed intensely. "Just because the amount of physical change has been minimal doesn’t mean the product is nutritious," says Cook.


"Multi" simply means more than one, so a muffin bearing this label, for example, could be made with many types of nutritious grains, such as oats and bran. But it could also be loaded with sugar, salt, and trans-fats, like many "mutli-grain" muffins and cookies you find in coffee shops. And the grains these products contain may not be present in their whole-grain form, which is the most nutritious way to consume grains. So a product labelled "multi-grain" isn't autimatically health food.

"The word ‘multi-grain’ really is open to interpretation, so it ultimately means nothing," says Cook.

Low sodium

Sodium (short for sodium chloride, the proper name for salt) (a nutrient found in table salt and other foods) is a simple chemical compound, so the labelling standards are straightforward. The term "low sodium" is based on the amount of sodium in milligrams per serving amount of the product, and the percentage of recommended daily intake, which you can find listed on the Nutrition Facts table.

However, the number of different sodium labels can be bewildering: "low sodium," "reduced sodium" and "zero sodium" are just a few of dozens of different sodium labels that are regulated by the CFIA, and all have precise meanings. "Low sodiumî" products cannot contain more than 140 miligrams of sodium per serving, "reduced sodium" products must contain 25 percent less sodium than a similar food, and "zero salt" means that the product contains 5 mg or less sodium per serving (and not actually zero).

Even if a product is described as "low-sodium," it’s not a free pass to overeat—you could eat a bag of "lightly salted" potato chips and still exceed your recommended daily intake of sodium.

If you do your math and monitor your portions carefully, eating low-sodium products may "make a dent in your daily sodium intake, but sometimes the labels can give a false sense of security," says Cook.

Fat free

Any grocery shopper can rattle off any number of labels that refer to fat. "Fat-free," "non-fat", "low in fat" and more than a dozen other terms are all legal, regulated labels with specific meanings. "Low fat," for example, means that the product contains three grams or less of fat per 100-g serving (or 30 percent or less of the energy in the food comes from fat, if the food is a pre-packaged meal). "Fat free" takes that number down to 1.5 g of fat per 100 g in a serving, but again note that "free" does not mean zero.

But are reduced-fat foods really the better choice? Not really, says Cook. Note that to keep foods tasty, manufacturers products usually replace the fat they remove from their reduced-fat products with sodium and sugar, which hardly makes them healthier. Plus, some fats are actually an important part of a healthy diet.

"A lot of the labels for fat are ridiculous—fat has been vilified in a way that was never substantiated, but it will take decades to undo the damage," Cook explains.

Sugar free

Processed foods that boast claims of low sugar content often substitute chemical sweeteners for natural sugar. While this may be necessary for some diabetics, choosing the sugar-free option isn’t the free pass to weight loss you might hope it to be. "The body is pretty smart, it knows when it’s not getting real calories, so people will find themselves doing things throughout the day to compensate, such as going for more portions than you would with real food," says Cook, adding, "there is no evidence that diet foods aid in weight loss."

Rich in omega acids

Omega acids are genuinely good for you, and the increasingly popular products that claim to be enriched with them have only just come under regulation by the CFIA.

But often, the amount of omega acids in a product may be very small, and will have a negligible impact on your health. Moreover, not all omega acids are created equal.

"Only the fish and marine-based oils will have the benefits you are reading about in the news; a lot of people are not getting the health benefits they think they might be," Cook says. Check the labels carefully—if the omega acids come from flax, you might be better off asking your doctor about fish-oil supplements.


When a product bears this label, 95 percent or more of the ingredients, from a whole apple to a pre-made lasagne, have to be grown to organic certification standards. This is in accordance with the Organic Products Regulations, which came into effect in 2009.  But nutritionally, there is little evidence that organic produce is any healthier than conventional agricultural products. Organic farming methods differ from conventional farming in their concern for water quality, soil ecology, landscape conservation, and the ethical treatment and health of the animals (as well as the farmers). If these factors are important to you, keep your eye out for the Organic Logo and the name of the certifying body displayed clearly on the label.

The bottom line

If you do purchase packaged foods, focus more on keeping your intake of sodium and sugar low, and make sure to get enough fibre and potassium, says Cook. And stop worrying about fat.

"But the bottom line is that whole and natural foods are always best," he adds.

Correction, March 16, 2011: Sodium was incorrectly identified as "short for" sodium chloride (table salt), when it is in fact a component of table salt. The error has been corrected above.

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Web exclusive, December 2010

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