9 'health' terms you hear all of the time and what they actually mean

iStock‘Gluten-free’ isn’t synonymous with healthy.
  • Attention-grabbing buzzwords and phrases are stamped all over food and beverage products but sometimes it can be difficult to understand what they actually mean.
  • Things labelled as “superfoods” or as being “made with real fruit” aren’t automatically healthy for you.
  • From a health perspective, “artisanal” doesn’t actually mean much.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

In the food and health world, there are many widely used terms that can be a bit tough to understand, even if you see them on just about every cereal box and restaurant menu out there.

Although they’re widespread and seem to have positive connotations, a lot of these terms may be a bit less meaningful in the health world than you think.

Here’s what some popular health-related buzzwords and phrases really mean.


“Antioxidants” are good for you, but when the word is on prepackaged foods, it can be misleading.

iStockThe term can sometimes be misleading.

Antioxidants are substances that can help to fight or slow down cell damage caused by free radicals – molecules produced when the body breaks down food.Research has found that antioxidants can prevent or delay certain diseases.

However, it’s important to note that the term can be misleading when you see it on cereal boxes, energy drinks, and food bars, according to Claire Martin, registered dietitian and cofounder of Being Healthfull.

There really is no guaranteed measurement of antioxidants that can be obtained from this type of processed food, Martin explained. Antioxidants are not necessarily going to show up in a quantity on the nutrition label, so in this context it might as well be a marketing term.

“If you’re hoping to eat an antioxidant-rich diet, stick to the whole foods like blueberries, citrus, greens, and other fruits and vegetables,” Martin added.


“Superfoods” typically refer to nutritionally dense foods … but the word doesn’t actually mean much.

This term is often used to describe fruits and vegetables that are nutritionally dense and reportedly have protective or healing properties, said Cathy Posey, registered dietitian, blogger, and nutrition coach from happyhouseful.com.

“[Superfoods] typically are abundant in vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients, flavonoids, and fibre if they are plant-based, or quality protein if they are animal products,” Posey told INSIDER.

But the term isn’t regulated because there are no set criteria something must fit to be labelled a superfood. Because of this, almost any plant-based food can be marketed as a superfood, Martin added.

Read More: Sorry, but superfood is a ‘nutritionally meaningless term’


The term “organic” is legally defined and regulated but it isn’t synonymous with “healthy.”

iStockThere’s a reason some fruit is labelled as being ‘organic.’

The term “organic” is legally defined and regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“‘Organic’ means 95% or more of the ingredients must have been grown or processed without synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, among other standards,” Posey said.

But just because something is organic it doesn’t mean it’s also healthy. Organic foods can still be packed with unhealthy fats and sugars and they can contain loads of added calories, Posey told INSIDER.


When it comes to food and beverages, “natural” doesn’t mean much.

iStockThe term isn’t regulated.

In the health world, the term “natural” doesn’t mean anything at all, according to Posey. It is an unregulated and undefined term that is used for marketing, unlike the term “organic,” which has a set definition.

“You will have to read the label for every ingredient to know if what you are eating is healthy for you or not,” Posey told INSIDER.


Something that is “made with real fruit” isn’t automatically healthier than something that isn’t.

iStockA juice that’s ‘made with real fruit’ can still be loaded with sugar.

The phrase “made with real fruit” is often found on juice or yogurt labels. But all this really means is that there is some part of the fruit present in the product. It does not mean that the nutritional value of the original fruit is still present, according to Posey.

“These foods are usually highly refined and processed and the food contains many additives which typically includes sugar or other sweeteners,” Posey said.


You might think “artisanal” foods have added nutritional benefits but the term is sort of meaningless from a health or nutrition standpoint.

iStockSmall-batch goods can be artisanal.

Although “artisanal” sounds fancy and like it implies something is organic or a bit on the healthy side, Martin said this word is legally meaningless and its use on food labels is not regulated.

“In a world where everything is mass produced, it’s a marketing word that attempts to differentiate the attached product as one that was made in small quantity with extra attention to detail, even if it was just mass produced,” Martin told INSIDER. “From a health or nutrition standpoint, it means nothing.”


“Sugar-free” foods can contain sugar alcohols that have the same impact on your blood sugar as foods with regular cane sugar.

iStockGum is commonly marketed as being sugar-free.

Another ambiguous term in the food realm is “sugar-free,” which generally means that there is not cane sugar present in a product. This doesn’t mean sugar-free foods are good for you or not sweetened in a different way.

In place of cane sugar, sugar alcohols or other artificial sweeteners are typically added to foods or beverages and they can impact your body similar to how sugar does, said Posey.

“Some sugar alcohols have the exact same effect on your blood sugar levels as cane sugar and yet candy made with these alcohols is labelled sugar-free and frequently consumed by uninformed diabetics,” Posey told INSIDER.


The term “gluten-free” is regulated by the FDA.

iStockGluten-free foods can have added sugars.

The term “gluten-free” is regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and products must adhere to certain guidelines to be able to use the term on its packaging and in its marketing, explained Martin.

To earn this label, food must be inherently gluten-free or not contain grains that have gluten in them. And, if the food does contain gluten, it must be less than 20 ppm.

Eating a gluten-free diet is a medical necessity for many who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, Martin explained. However, she said there is a growing trend of people who also avoid grains for weight loss or digestive issues unrelated to gluten and this has driven up the popularity of gluten-free foods.

But many foods that are gluten-free are corn-based or have increased amounts of sugar, Posey said. So following a gluten-free diet probably isn’t the answer if you’re just trying to eat healthily and have no medical reason to avoid gluten.

Read More: 13 foods you’d never guess contain gluten


“Multigrain” has a healthy connotation but it really just means a food contains components of more than one grain.

iStock‘Multigrain’ isn’t synonymous with ‘healthy.’

“‘Multigrain’ means that there are components of more than one grain [in a food]. It does not mean anything else,” Posey told INSIDER.

A refined, processed, and sweetened multigrain cereal is no more healthy than a refined, processed, and sweetened single-grain cereal, she explained.

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