Label overload: Heart healthy, Organic, Low sodium…….

Kate Coughlan April 12, 2021

As we stroll the isles of the grocery store, we are inundated with numerous food brands that use creative ways to entice us into buying those brands. For kids it tends to be a certain character on a cereal box, or bright colored packaging, however, as adults we too fall into the advertising trap if we are not well informed.  However, in some cases these labels can tell us a lot about a food at quick glance thereby allowing us to make informed decisions.

Are these words/labels regulated by a scientific body? Well, that depends on the word!


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The word “organic” is regulated by the National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA requires annual inspection of sites where food is grown and processed. During that inspection, the USDA looks at many factors including but not limited to soil health, pest control methods, water systems, non-GMO conditions and record keeping.

The USDA uses various categories for organic:

100% organic: Must be 100% organic ingredients.  The label includes the name of the certifying agency and may have the USDA Organic seal (see image).  in addition to the words “100% organic”

Organic: Must be at minimum 95% organic ingredients with up to 5% of non-organic ingredients that fall under a selected list (National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances) as determined by the USDA. Examples include fish oil and baking soda. The label includes the name of the certifying agency and may have the USDA Organic seal in addition to the words “organic”

Made with organic/ Specific ingredients that are organic: Must have 70% organic ingredients to qualify for this label. Organic products are identified on label as organic.

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Alternatives to the USDA organic label, are two non-governmental programs that are run by volunteers within the farming community and the farms themselves: Certified naturally grown and Non-GMO. Although all USDA organic labels require Non-GMO products.

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Free range and natural are two labels that do not have a defined standard or definition. These terms are not regulated by a third party agency (

Low Sodium and Reduced Sodium:

The word “Low sodium” and “Reduced sodium” are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Low sodium has a set number of milligrams of sodium (140 mg or less per serving) that a product cannot exceed to be deemed low sodium on its label. The dietary guidelines state that individuals should consume less than 2,300 milligrams per day of salt so knowing a product has less than 140 mg of sodium is advantageous. However, reduced sodium does not use a set amount in terms of milligrams but rather a percentage (25%) of the regular product. This is a bit more concerning as if the regular product has an excessive amount of sodium, then 25% is great but are you still getting to much salt? Some other claims that are regulated by the FDA include lightly salted, no salt or salt free.

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Heart Healthy:

The heart healthy label was initiated by the American Heart Association (AHA) and corresponds to FDA dietary guidelines. The certification of a food as heart healthy by the AHA requires that product to fall within or under certain limits of fats (saturated and trans), carbohydrates, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins and minerals as well as other specified requirements based on the food product. But be careful as not are hearts are the same! Ensure it states AHA certified on the label.

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The examples above are just a few regarding the labels placed on food packages by the company. Bottom line is due your research and look at those food labels on the back or side as those are regulated by the FDA!

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To understand more about the food choices we make based on food labels and your body, check out the book entitled “Atherosclerosis Attack: Traffic Jam in Your Arteries.” This book is intended to help middle schoolers understand the impact of their daily lifestyle choices through a story. During this stage when children are learning to make informed choices and becoming more independent about choosing what to eat or which physical activities to engage in, the book helps them understand the long-term effects of their choices. If you haven’t yet, buy your child a copy of Atherosclerosis Attack: Traffic Jam in Your Arteries, then provide the support and environment your child needs to make healthy choices and hopefully establish healthy dietary patterns and physical activity.

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