What Do Nutrition Labels Actually Mean?

By: Sarah White

Have you ever found yourself reading a nutrition label and asking yourself, “hmm what does that word actually mean?” Millions of Americans find themselves confused with the terminology food companies use that may trick you. This blog aims to provide you with the information and knowledge to decipher what they mean by highlighting the topics of refinement, fortification, gluten free, hydrogenation, natural vs. added sugar and natural vs. organic labeling.

1. Refined vs. Whole Grain

In 1873 the roller mill was invented, setting the stage for a refinery revolution. Between the 1870s and 1970s refined products tremendously increased. What does it mean for foods to be refined? Refining is when a highly perishable component of food is removed to increase the product’s shelf life. When a grain is refined, the bran and germ of the grain are removed leaving only the endosperm.

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            The removal of the bran and germ also takes away many key nutrients including water-soluble B vitamins, minerals like iron, and fiber which aids in digestion, satiety and may benefit heart health.

            The process of refining foods has created a whole slew of nutrition definitions attributed to food products. Some of these terms include enriched, which is the addition of a vitamin or mineral that should naturally occur in the food but was removed during the refinement process, and fortified, which is the addition of a vitamin or mineral that would not naturally occur in the food product. Many commercial grains such as breads and cereals are often enriched with the B vitamins removed from the product through the refinement process. Fortified products will be discussed further in the next section.

Other labels that are used to refer to the refinement process include: whole grain, whole wheat, milled, and unbleached. Here are some definitions of these terms:

  • Whole Grain: The grain has not been treated with any processing methods. These foods made from whole grains contain all the essential and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire seed.
  • Whole Wheat: 100% whole grain products. It is essentially synonymous with whole grain.
  • Milled: Grains ground into flour and other wheat products. This is a form of processing using heavy machinery.
  • Unbleached: Flour that is bleached naturally as it ages as opposed to bleached flour that is treated with chemical agents to speed up the bleaching process.

The Whole Grains Council created a stamp to help consumers ensure the whole grain content of products. There are two different stamps: the basic Whole Grain stamp and the 100% Whole Grain stamp. The basic stamp means that the product may contain some extra bran, germ or refined flour and meets the minimum requirements of 8 grams of whole grain per serving. The 100% stamp represents all products are whole grains and meets the minimum requirement of 16 grams of whole grains per serving. Some appropriate sources of whole grains are whole wheat breads, whole oats, steel cut oatmeal, brown rice, rye, and quinoa. Look for this stamp of approval next time you are shopping!

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2. Fortified

            Fortification is the process of adding nutrients to foods that would not naturally be found in the product. By law, food manufacturers are required to add back the vitamins and minerals that were removed during the refinement process through enrichment, although consuming foods that contain a natural nutrient source are generally the better sources of those nutrients. However, fortified foods provide a nutritional advantage in an industry of increased processing. Some examples of fortified foods include calcium fortified orange juice, dairy products fortified with vitamin D, and non-dairy milks, including soy and nut milks, fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Here is an example of calcium fortified Tropicana Orange Juice.

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100% Pure Pasterized Orange Juice, Calcium Hydroxide* Malic Acid* Citric Acid* Vitamin D3, *Ingredient Not Found in Regular Orange Juice

3. Partially Hydrogenated

            The process of hydrogenating fats turns a liquid fat into a solid fat. Hydrogenation dates back to the early 1900’s and an increase in partially hydrogenated fats came about in the 1960’s, when the “low fat” craze began. When you see the words “partially hydrogenated” in your ingredients list, this is accounted for in the trans fat section of the nutrition label. Many manufacturers use partially hydrogenated fats to extend the shelf life of products, assist in mass manufacturing in industrial settings, and they are also much cheaper than their solid animal fat counterparts such as butter. Consumption of partially hydrogenated fats has been proven to put people at higher risk for heart disease and some metabolic diseases, which is why in the 1990’s the FDA made it clear that hydrogenated fats have many adverse health effects and limited manufacturer usage. Some sources of partially hydrogenated fats are: coffee creamers, crackers, cookies, cakes, fast foods, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, frostings, and margarines. The FDA encourages consumers to carefully check ingredients to determine whether foods contain “partially hydrogenated oils.”

4. Gluten and Gluten Free

            With the increasing trend in awareness and necessity for gluten free eating the media has seriously skewed society’s perception on gluten. Eating gluten free has become all the rage but do you even know what gluten is? Gluten is a protein found in products containing wheat, rye and barley and gives breads their volume and chewy texture. According to the National Celiac Foundation gluten is only a significant problem for 1% of the population: people with celiac disease. Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease affecting the small intestine. Individuals with celiac disease lack the ability to effectively digest gluten and their bodies mount an immune response due to this inability.

It is important to note that the terms “gluten free” and “healthy” are not synonymous. As consumers it is important to recognize this mixed messaging. A gluten free label simply means that the product does not contain gluten. Actually, the majority of gluten free products are usually more processed than those of regular gluten containing products. For example: these photographs represent the difference between nutrition facts of Snyder’s regular pretzels and Snyder’s gluten free pretzels. Notice that the regular pretzels contain fewer calories, sodium, and total fat, as well as more protein, iron, and other nutrients than the gluten free pretzels.

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Regular Snyder’s Pretzels
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Snyder’s Gluten Free Pretzels





“gluten free” and “healthy” are not synonymous.





5. Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

Natural and added sugars are new to the food-labeling world. For the first time ever the FDA added in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines that we should reduce the amount of added sugar we consume to 25 grams per day. So what are the differences between natural sugars and added sugar? Natural sugars are found in fruits, vegetables, and milk products as naturally occurring carbohydrates (glucose, fructose, and lactose). Other forms of natural sugar include agave nectar, maple syrup, molasses, and honey.

Added sugars are sugars or other sweeteners added to products during processing to enhance flavor. Some sources of added sugars include sucrose (cane/table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup. Sucrose is a disaccharide made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. High fructose corn syrup is made up of 55% fructose and 45% glucose. High fructose corn syrup is found in many products and is associated with the rising rates of obesity. Because these sugars are added, often in excess, they offer little health benefits. Some adverse health impacts of sugar include: high blood glucose and insulin levels, increased triglycerides, and increased LDL (the bad cholesterol).

An example of a natural sugar vs. an added sugar is skim milk vs. chocolate skim milk. Both of these milks contain the naturally occurring monosaccharide lactose. The chocolate skim milk, however, has added sugar due to the chocolate. Take a look at these two labels. The top label is Garelick Farms Fat Free Milk and the bottom label is TruMoo Fat Free Chocolate Milk. The ingredients for the Garelick Farms milk is not labeled but includes, “fat free milk, Vitamin A palmitate, and Vitamin D3.” It may seem like the sugar content is high at 12g in the fat free milk, however it is naturally occurring milk lactose, zero added sugars. The sugar content for the fat free chocolate milk is much higher (at 18 grams) because more sugar was added due to the chocolate – notice sugar is the second ingredient listed. The fat free chocolate milk has the natural lactose sugar, but also has added sugar from the chocolate.

6. Natural vs. Organic

            When walking through the store, many products claim that they are “all natural” or contain “all natural” ingredients. But what does natural really mean? Here are a few definitions to clear things up:

USDA Definitions:

  • Natural: “A product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural.” Note that this is a loose definition and the USDA does not have a strict definition of the term “natural.” It is important to know that the USDA does not regulate the labeling of the word natural on any products. Companies may label their products as natural but the USDA will never look at it.
  • Naturally Raised: “Animals not given antibiotics, growth hormones or animal by-products.” To be considered as naturally raised, farms must be certified by USDA agricultural marketing service. However, once certified, the USDA again does not regulate the labeling of products.
  • Organic: “Organic food is produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. Not permitted are most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. The USDA National Organic Program website has more information including inspection and certification information.” Foods that are “certified organic” must consist of 95% organically produced ingredients. The term organic has very specific regulations set by congress. Farms must apply to become certified organic and must practice organic farming for three years to fulfill certification.

Health Benefits of Organic Foods:

            -Higher in cancer fighting antioxidant levels than conventional crops

            -Meats are leaner and less caloric

– Products are higher in Omega 3 fatty acids (beneficial for heart health)

            -Significantly lower in toxins and pesticides

After learning all of that, here are Body Resolution’s general guidelines are:

  • Avoid refined grains and choose whole grains options
  • Gluten free eating is not for everyone
  • Minimize partially hydrogenated fat intake
  • Stick to natural sweeteners as opposed to artificial sweeteners
  • Purchase organic produce and meats while shopping













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