Nutrition Buzzwords…what do they all actually mean?


Hello everyone! Today’s post is a bit of a long one, and one that has been a long time coming. Today, I am going through definitions of all the nutritional buzzwords that we may hear all around us; in the media, on package labels and in health articles. The purpose of this article is to help you to an informed consumer of nutrition information both in person, and online. 


 We see fortified products all around the grocery store. Milk, orange juice and cereals are commonly fortified. To fortify means to add a micro-nutrient (vitamin or mineral) to a food product. This occurs with certain food products that have either lost micronutrients due to industrial processing, or added to a product that is commonly consumed within a population that typically has a certain deficiency. For instance, plant-based milks and juices can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D, in order to ensure proper calcium and vitamin D intake for those that do not typically consume dairy. Another common fortification that we see is with folic acid in cereal. Birth defects like spinal bifida were being seen in women in North America, and folic acid can help prevent these birth defects. Since cereal products were the highest consumed food product, it made sense to fortify cereal with folic acid to prevent spinal cord defects large scale. And, it worked!


This is a tough one, because it can mean so many different things. For most people, “natural” generally refers to an item that is as close to it’s form in nature. In food labeling, “Natural” typically means a food item that has been unaltered and does not contain preservatives, however this label is generally misused. To see the word ‘natural ingredients’ on a label means that the food product contains some items that have been unaltered, yet this food item can still contain preservatives and additives in the product as a whole. “Natural” is not an indication of health, and many foods that are “natural” can still contain high amounts of sugar, sodium and other ingredients that may not be the healthiest.

“Additives” and “Preservatives” 

An additive is any substance that is added to a food product. This can be to enhance the flavour, colour or to preserve. Preservatives are a type of additive, and these substances help to prolong shelf life, as well as limit growth of microbes found in food. Preservatives are a huge part of food safely, however research continually comes out about the potential negative health effects of certain additives and preservatives. Since preservatives are an extra substance, and not one that our body metabolizes or utilizes, it is good to limit the amount of food that contains preservatives, and other additives.


Organic refers to the agriculture approach that certain farmers choose to follow.  Organic also includes the way food has been processed and handled. To become a certified organic product (USDA), there are strict guidelines that must be followed. A few organic farming practices and principles include: using no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, covering the crops, not adding food additives or hormones and no genetically modified products. Many food products can be labeled organic including boxed goods like cake, cookies, cereal etc. Now, whether or not organic is healthier is debatable. We know from a basic nutrition level, that organic produce is not more nutritious in that is does not have more vitamins and minerals. Yet, non-organic food can contain chemicals from the pesticide and herbicides, which can accumulate in the human body. My opinion is that organic food practices can be seen as more of a social, environmental and political food issue, which is my personal focus on the matter. I also don’t think that organic necessarily means healthier, especially on boxed goods. I still think it is important to think of each food individually, and sometimes it may be worth purchasing organic, whereas other times it may not matter.


We often come across TV commercials and magazine ads that give us tips on how we can speed up our metabolism, yet we need to have a better understanding of what the word “metabolism” means. Metabolism is the general word that sums up all the biochemical processes that happen in the human body. Those biochemical reactions can be categorized into two significant reactions; 1) the building reactions and 2) the breaking reactions. The building reactions are called anabolic reactions, which are primarily responsible for building cells, repairing tissues and growth. Anabolic reactions consume energy in the process. Breaking reactions, are known as catabolic reactions and break down bigger molecules into smaller molecules to produce energy. In a nutshell, metabolism is the way our body utilizes all the macro-nutrients including, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats for us to maintain life.

Most of us have a baseline metabolism that is a mixture of genetics and lifestyle. For instance, athletes will have a higher metabolism due to their lifestyle and muscle mass. Certain foods and lifestyle factors may increase our metabolism, such as thermogenic foods ( like green tea, and chilli peppers, which raise our temperature and can help with the breakdown reactions), and exercise, but this is relatively very slight, and there is ultimately little we can do to truly change our metabolism on a day-to-day basis.

“Calories” or “low cal”

A calorie is the measurement of energy. One calorie is defined as the amount of the energy it would take to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius (33.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Calories can be used as a measurement of energy in food, but it is still complex. A food may have a certain amount of calories, but it does not mean we utilize all of this energy.

Low Calories” means that it is a food item low in calories. On a food label, this means it contains less than 40 calories per serving size.

Calories are simply a measurement of energy in food, and not a measurement of nutrition or health. This is important to keep in mind. We need a certain amount of energy from food, and we generally try to get nutrient-dense foods.

“Empty calories”? 

We just learned that calories are the measurement of energy in food for our bodies. Empty calories are calories (aka energy) with little to no nutritional value i.e. does not contain vitamins, minerals, protein or fibre.  Refined food like cakes, cookies, sweetened beverages, candy are often referred to as empty calories in that they provide the body with energy, but not a lot of nutrition.


Blueberries, red wine, coffee, chocolate…you may have heard these foods are rich in antoxidants- and they are! But, what are the benefits? Essentially, antioxidants prevent body cells and tissues from damage. Let’s break down the word – “Anti” means against, and “oxidant” means an oxidizing agent. An oxidation reaction is one that occurs in our body, and as a result produces something called ‘free radicals”. Free radicals can cause damage to cells and tissues, which may contribute to certain disease developments, such as cancer. Antioxidants are nutrients that counteract free radicals, essentially neutralizing their effect, and this can prevent and slow down tissue damage. Vitamin C, A, and E are all common examples of antioxidants. 


First, let me define what “dairy” means. Dairy is any foods that contain milk or milk products coming from mammary animals such as, cows, camels, and goats.  So dairy-free” is a food that does not contain any animal-based milk products. Foods that are typically labeled “dairy free”, are foods that otherwise contain dairy. For instance, dairy-free milk, cheese, sauces or dressings.

Any person who is vegan, plant-based, lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy would generally consume “dairy-free” predicts. Once again, dairy-free does not mean healthy

 “Lactose Free” 

The term “dairy-free” can often get mixed up with “lactose-free”. Lactose is sugar that is found in milk and its products. Lactose is broken down by a digestive enzyme called lactase. Individuals may be deficient in lactase, meaning they can not break down lactose. This causes digestive disturbances.

However, if you have an intolerance or allergy to dairy, it may be other components of the dairy that are impacting your health. Lactose-free products may not be particularly helpful and you may need to avoid dairy as a whole.


A paleo diet is one of the ancient nutritional approach and a diet that is popular. This diet is to mimic an ancestral diet, and is void of grains, legumes, packaged items and dairy.


 Gluten is the name of the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats. It makes dough stretchy and gives bread its sponge-like texture. Celiac disease is an allergy to this protein, and can cause an array of symptoms. Individuals may also experience digestive issues from gluten, even without a celiac diagnosis. Gluten-free products are more popular, and can even be considered a trend. Gluten-free does not mean healthy and often labeled “gluten-free” items contain other refined starches such as tapioca starch and potato starch. Yes, this maybe necessary if you are celiac, but if you avoid gluten it is often best to enjoy naturally gluten-free items.


Anti-inflammatory foods are foods that are linked to reducing the inflammatory response in the body, or foods that are connected to lowering inflammatory markers in the blood. Many foods are said to be anti-inflammatory, and these are basically otherwise healthy foods such as healthy fats, fruit and vegetables.

I hope you found this blog post informative! When we see these buzzwords plastered throughout food products at the grocery store or mixed into articles, it can get overwhelming. Knowing what these words actually mean can help you make healthy choices for yourself and your family, which is what I am all about!


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