What Food Labels Actually Mean (Not Much)

Marketers know how to tug on your heartstrings. (I know, I am one). A leisurely stroll down any grocery aisle will certainly offer up a cure for whatever ails you, plus reassuring terminology like “natural”, “cage-free” and other terms that harken buyers back to the idyllic farm days of yore. Many of these terms of unregulated and have no industry definition. Here’s what they really mean.

How We Got Here

Changing consumer interest in “healthy” foods, itself a term without a concrete definition, drove a concerted effort by brands to introduce food labeling that celebrated the positive qualities of their products. In some cases, manufacturers did actually make slight changes to the formulation of marquee products; in 2015, Cheerios went gluten-free.

Easier than replacing ingredients, engineering new products, and shifting supply chain resources, however, is simply plastering something on the front of the box. Here’s what common food marketing terms actually mean.

Organic

Organic is the most controlled and specified term in the food wellness world. The USDA includes language that ensures organic foods:

  • Are not treated with growth hormones (applies to poultry, eggs, meat, and all dairy products, including milk)
  • Plant-based foods are not exposed to “most conventional pesticides”, synthetic fertilizers or bioengineering

To use organic labeling, the farm or plant must be inspected by an approved certifier. It’s also important to note that organic has various levels of certification.

  • 100% organic meet all applicable criteria. These food products may use the USDA Organic seal.
  • Organic: 95% of ingredients meet certification. Close enough, right? The USDA also allows these food products to use its seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: This level must use at least 70% organic ingredients. While products can use this phrase on their packaging, they cannot use the USDA seal.

Local

Basically meaningless. The USDA and other food organizations have no specific definition of ‘local’. Without a regulated definition, local foods at your grocery store could be sourced from your county, your state, your region, or technically anywhere they want; look for specific labeling to learn the actual source of foods claimed as locally-grown.

Whole

The USDA and other food organizations do not regulate or certify any food as ‘whole’. In most cases, whole foods refer to unprocessed or refined foods. In theory, they do no have any added ingredients, such as fresh produce, whole grains, dairy and meat products. However, the use of the term ‘whole’ means little; always inspect labeling to see if additional ingredients have been introduced.

Natural

The most purposefully misleading term on the list. There is no regulatory definition for ‘natural’ foods and while the FDA claims to have a policy on use of the term ‘natural’, there is no certification, inspection, or regulatory system in place to monitor its use. In theory, natural describes foods that have no natural or artificial additives in the product.

The FDA does not account for manufacturing processes in this loose definition either. In short, foods with the term ‘natural’ on the label should not include added coloring and be minimally processed, but know there is no regulation ensuring those recommendations have been followed by manufacturers.

Grass-fed, Free-range, or Free-roaming

There is no USDA definition or certification for these terms. In theory, free-range promises consumers that animals have been allowed outside or pasture-fed. Some chicken farms claim this by simply putting a single small hole in the wall that chickens could, hypothetically, use to go outside in a small pen. For broilers who have spent their entire lives in cages, it’s impossible. They’ve grown so large that their legs and the overcrowding of their pens make it a challenge to move.

GMO-free

You guessed it; there’s no certification for this from the federal government. Some third-party organizations do offer certification, but be sure to research which companies are putting their name on the GMO-free seal that adorns your package. There is little or no evidence that genetically-modified organisms have a negative impact on human health, but there is growing evidence that such products are not sustainable and mono-crops could lead to dramatic food shortages in the event of a disease or crop failure.

What Should I Eat?

Ask your doctor for guidance on healthy eating and make food purchasing based on the back of the food package, not the front. In many cases, food with claims like ‘natural’ and ‘whole’ deserve as much or more investigation than foods that do no make those claims. Compare food labels between brands marketing as “healthy” with name-brand and generic offerings; you’ll often find they are all nearly identical.

Learn more about diet, wellness, and cancer prevention at LessCancer.org.

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Cody Sovis

Cody Sovis

Low-level marketing guy with a cycling habit. Advocate for cancer prevention, active lifestyles, equality, and breakfast cookies.