Here's How to Tell If a "Healthy" Food Is Actually Healthy

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Have you ever picked up a packaged food that said it was low-fat or low-calorie and felt like you were making a wise health choice? Or perhaps when you're met with both a regular bottle of soy sauce and a low-sodium option, you choose the latter, deeming the decision a no-brainer. These seemingly healthy epithets make you feel like you're benefitting your body, as though any labels missing this denotation will leave you worse off.

Maria Bella, founder of Top Balance Nutrition in NYC has some news for you, though: Foods deemed low in one category or light in another should be taken with a grain of salt (so to speak). "The front of the packages and the marketing are not regulated," she says. "Manufacturers pay a lot of money for prime shelf space to get their products at your eye level. Great cheaper items often hide on top or bottom shelves with less attractive labels, but are just as nutritious and delicious overall products." While food items can't always be taken at face value, the FDA provides guidelines for each technical term and what they should translate to.

Below, Bella breaks down each common buzzy food label term.

  • Low-calorie: Item contains 40 calories or less per serving. The FDA allows manufacturers to use the terms "reduced" or "less" if a food contains at least a 25% reduction when compared to the reference food. However, "low-calorie" foods have the potential to cause us to take in more calories since our minds think we're eating healthy, and thus, we feel justified in consuming more.
  • Calorie-free: Fewer than five calories per serving (so technically not "free" of calories).
  • Sugar-free and fat-free: Less than 0.5 grams of each per serving. Sugar-free foods must contain no ingredient that is a sugar or "generally understood to contain sugars," unless the ingredient statement has an asterisk that refers to a footnote, such as "adds a trivial amount of sugar." Same goes for fat.
  • Low-fat: Food must have three grams or less per serving. Low-fat foods don't necessarily mean healthier, though: research suggests that lower body weight and less weight gain are reported among those who eat full-fat dairy, and studies are inconclusive as to whether or not low-fat dairy is better for you.
  • Light: Food may contain 1/3 fewer calories than the original food or the sodium content of a certain food may have been reduced by 50%. Here's the tricky part: "Light" may also be used to describe the color, such as light brown sugar or light bread, which says nothing about the nutritional value.
  • Low-sodium: 140 mg or less per serving. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium to less than 2300 mg a day.
  • Healthy: This seems like a broad term, but Bella says packaged food with this denotation must be low in fat and saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium.
  • Low-cholesterol: Food must have 20 mg or less and two grams or less of unsaturated fat per serving. Cholesterol is the waxy buildup that lines the walls of arteries, and, according to U.S. dietary guidelines, you should eat no more than 300 mg per day.
  • Fresh: This is an alarming one: The term "fresh" allows for the addition of approved waxes and coatings, the use of post-harvest pesticides, the application of mild chlorine wash or mild acid wash on produce, or the treatment of raw foods with ionizing radiation.
  • Lean: This translates to less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams
  • Good source: Food contains between 10 to 19% of the daily value of the certain nutrient

Next up: Nutritionists all say this the best fruit for your body.