Just because a box of cookies is labeled with the word “skinny” or “healthy” doesn't mean it’s automatically waist-friendly. Both generic and brandname manufacturers are given a shocking amount of leeway when it comes to how they label their packaging. It’s imperative to not only check nutrition labels, but to also decipher what buzzwords actually mean. We asked nutritionist Maria A. Bella, MS, RD, CDN to help us break it down.  

When "free" doesn’t mean free

Antibiotic-free and hormone-free: While these words are defined by the USDA, the USDA doesn’t actually regulate them. Only trust it if you see third-party verification with USDA Organic, Certified Naturally Grown, Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane.

Calorie-free: Fewer than 5 calories per serving (meaning these foods are not calorie-free!) 

Sugar-free and fat-free: Less than 0.5 grams per serving (again, they are not free)

The tricky difference between "lean," "light" and "extra-lean"

Lean: 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

Extra-lean: Less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams

The buzziest of them all

Natural: One of the most over-used words, know that when you see it on a packaged product it means basically nothing – the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term beyond that the food must be free of added color, artifical flavors or synthetic substances. 

Healthy: Must be low in fat and saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. However, note that the food can still be high in calories and sugar.

Light: May contain one-third fewer calories than the original food; sodium content of a certain food may have been reduced by 50-percent.

How "low" can you go? 

Low-fat: 3 grams or less per serving

Low saturated fat: 1 gram or less per serving

Low-sodium: 140 mg or less per serving

Very low-sodium: 35 mg or less per serving

Low-cholesterol: 20 mg or less and 2 grams or less of unsaturated fat per serving

Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving

Reduced: Nutritionally altered product contains at least 25-percent less of a nutrient or calories than the regular version of the product.

And how "high"?

Good source: Contains between 10-to-19-percent of the daily value of the certain nutrient

High: Must contain 20-percent or more of the daily value for a particular nutrient in a serving