Food labeling has become an extremely big concern for consumers. In fact, an increasing number of consumers have been losing faith in food labels because of incorrect labeling and misleading terms. In particular, labels such as, organic, healthy, and natural are not always understood and can mean different things to different people, which can greatly impact the price of many foods. Many consumers confuse the term natural with a non-GMO product or an organic label with a product that is grown sustainably. Here are 19 of the top terms you might find on product packaging today so you can truly understand what’s going on with your favorite foods and make informed decisions before you purchase.
A healthy label can only be applied based off of FDA food regulations. In order for the healthy label to be applied to food it has to be low in fat, low in saturated fat, low in cholesterol as well as contain a certain percentage of specific vitamins. Unfortunately, this precludes many nutritious foods, such as nuts, avocados, eggs, olives, and salmon because of the total fat or cholesterol. Healthy does not actually label the food for nutrient content.
The USDA doesn’t define All Natural, so a company can use the label according to their own definition, which may not mean much. The only general guide food manufacturers have to adhere to is that a product has no added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances (i.e., artificial ingredients). This leaves a LOT of room for interpretation. So, foods labeled natural may have preservatives, contain high fructose corn syrups, and other ingredients or treatments that can be rationalized. Meat, for example, is produced with the assistance of antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, and fed genetically enhanced materials, but may be labeled natural.
This is one of those labels that is often confusing and often mixed up with Healthy, All Natural, and 100% GMO-Free. A business that handles or processes organic food needs to obtain a certification before applying organic logos to their products. The USDA definition requires that 95% of the ingredients be processed without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, and other requirements. If the label says Made With Organic Ingredients, it means 70% of the ingredients meet the same standards. Organic food labels are not the same as nutrition content. They do not mean the product is low in fat, high in vitamins, and low in calories or sugar. One last note, even though the Organic label means the ingredients cannot be GMO foods, meats and other animal products can be fed GMO-laden foods, such as corn. So, the supply chain may contain GMO products.
While we would love a real government-sponsored certification for this label, there currently is no official policy for food labels that sport the words Sustainably Grown. Any labels only represent the individual philosophy and definition by the manufacturing company. This also means certified organic food is not necessarily grown with eco-minded practices in place, a distinction that is commonly overlooked.
For many of us, this conjures images of chickens wandering happily through a field of green. It turns out, while there is a USDA definition, there are no requirements for the actual duration or quality of the outdoor environment. In fact, because of the lack of specificity in the definition, most farms and factories interpret Free-Range merely as exposure to the outdoors. Whenever possible, it’s best to know the farm or source of your eggs. Shopping local for this particular item, when possible, is your best bet because you may be able to visit the farm.
This is one of those labels that may be better in the future, such as the case of the Organic label, but right now it’s unreliable. It is not highly regulated by the Food Safety Inspection Service. Think of it as being akin to text messaging while driving being illegal, but not highly regulated by police. Also, while Cage-Free sounds nice because, like the Free-Range label, it makes us think chickens are wandering around a green field, the definition does not actually address whether the birds have adequate space or access to the outdoors. It just means they aren’t held in cages. Going to local farms and farmer’s markets for eggs, or joining a co-op can be an alternative because you can better understand or investigate where your eggs come from and under what conditions.
This suggests to most of us that the livestock were fed a strict grain diet. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty unreliable label. It actually means they were fed grain, but not only grain. Their feed may also contain animal byproducts and other non-regulated materials.
Similar to the Grain Fed label, this sparks an image of cows and other livestock being raised on a diet of grasses and hay. This is only reliable if the food label specifically says, “USDA Process Verified” with an image of the shield. If it’s missing this label but says Grass Fed, it can mean they may have relied on whatever they foraged on the plains or their in their holdings, which would include a variety of greens and other non-grass plant material. It also means that the label is purely voluntary and unofficial.
This has become a misunderstood buzzword over the years, rather than a responsible food label. Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat, and have a detrimental effect on those with Celiac Disease. It also needs to be avoided by those with gluten sensitivity. Unfortunately, Gluten-Free labels are often mistaken as synonymous with healthy. However, gluten-free whole grains may have less fiber than their gluten counterparts. These food products also often contain larger amounts of sugar to offset the taste, or other unhealthy products used to help bind and soften the gluten-free ingredients. Again, reading the nutrition label is so much better than relying on the Gluten-Free label, alone.
The only real problem with this label is it is often taken too literally or just plain misunderstood. For a product to be Cholesterol-Free, it must contain less than 2 mg of cholesterol per serving. So, there’s still cholesterol, just a very low amount. The misunderstanding arises when plant products are labeled Cholesterol-Free. Cholesterol is made by the liver in animals (which includes humans). When a plant product, such as margarine or vegetable oil is labeled Cholesterol-Free, it’s not actually any better than any of the other similar products (i.e., other margarines, other oils, etc…).
This label is not defined in any legal sense and is not considered defensible in scientific terms because of the lack of ability to test as well as the likelihood of broad contamination to crops. There is one project that claims a rigorous standard, called the “Non-GMO Project.” They offer a verification seal that provides some transparency for North American consumers looking for verified best practices to ensure GMO was avoided at all levels of production.
NO SUGAR ADDED
No Sugar Added: It should go without saying, but this means sugar has not been artificially added to the food. The product may contain its own sugar, such as many fruits. The food may also contain carbohydrates, which can be simple sugars or complex starches, both of which raise blood sugar. The No Sugar Added label is often mistaken for calorie-free, sugar-free, and carbohydrate-free and is commonly used on snacks, especially children’s snacks.
The Sugar-Free label just means the food product has 0.5 grams or less of sugar per serving. It does not mean the item is healthy, nor does it mean the product is calorie-free or carbohydrate-free. It may actually be high in calories and carbohydrates. Be careful to read the nutrition content, not just the Sugar-Free label on the front.
This label causes a lot of confusion. Just because an item is fat-free doesn’t mean it is sugar-free (hello, red vines). Consumers need to check the nutrition label for calories per serving and make note of the sugar and carbohydrates.
Another confusing label often mistaken for fat-free or containing less fat. While this may be true, read the nutrition label to be sure. The fat content must be 50% less than same-category products. Unfortunately, some manufacturers use the label, Light, to refer to the color or taste of the food.
Many breads and crackers are made with caramel coloring so they look darker and can be thought to contain a higher content of grains or being healthier. If it just says multigrain, you have no way of knowing which grains and whether they are nutrient-rich. It may say made with whole grain, but that can be unclear because we don’t know what percentage of the food product is whole grain and what percentage is refined grain. Refined grain is processed and stripped of nutrients. Instead, look for labels that say 100% Whole Grain. This means the food will have more fiber and other nutrients than those with a large percentage of refined grains.
When considering seafood, the label, Farm-Raised, simply means the fish were grown in pens in ponds or lakes or pens in the ocean. Sometimes these pens are on land in the form of arm fisheries and aquaculture. Typically, these are closer to cities to help decrease transportation costs. There are concerns over the sustainability of farm-raised fish, just as there are concerns over the sustainability of wild caught fish. Ultimately, some fish is better than no fish and it is up to the consumer to do the research and decide for themselves the best alternative.
The label, Wild Caught Fish just means the fish were caught in their natural environment. However, sometimes young fish are caught and then added to farms. There is no detail in the regulation of this label that requires a time-period. This means sometimes the labels Wild-Caught and Farm-Raised, can mean the same thing. The best thing to do is to ask about the source of the fish. It can also be helpful to consider educating oneself on how to eat sustainable seafood, which is a different approach to choosing which fish to eat.
This is an important label that says the farmers received fair prices and the workers received fair wages for their efforts to produce the food. It also means the workers were provided fair labor working conditions. The Fair Trade label can be found on a number of products, but those products are not often displayed as prominently as other brands because it is not as understood or as desired as other food labels. It is also often mixed up with Free Trade, which is an economic term that refers to trade policies between countries and often does not support the requirements of free trade.
WHOLE GRAIN: Many breads and crackers are made with caramel coloring so they look darker and can be thought to contain a higher content of grains or being healthier. If it just says multigrain, you have no way of knowing which grains and whether they are nutrient-rich. It may say made with whole grain, but that can be unclear because we don’t know what percentage of the food product is whole grain and what percentage is refined grain. Refined grain is processed and stripped of nutrients. Instead, look for labels that say 100% Whole Grain. This means the food will have more fiber and other nutrients than those with a large percentage of refined grains.
In almost all cases, the consumer’s best bet is to rely on the back of the package, or wherever the nutrition info is location. The labels on the front of the package are sales-engineered eye-catchers, not the final word on the package contents, ingredients, and source of the food.
Ultimately, education is your best defense. Learn about the labels, nutrition facts, and supply chain of your favorite foods. We can’t know where everything comes from, but understanding the source of your dietary staples (e.g., eggs, milk, seafood, some produce, and meats), is a great starting place. Research packaged and manufactured foods later.
Of course, whether you live in a small city apartment, a suburban plot, or a rural homestead, it is possible to grow some of your food. A salad bar that can feed two people salad lunches year-round can be grown in a hall closet with the right set-up, and is less expensive than grocery store produce in the long-run – but that is an article for another day.