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What Do Food Labels Really Mean?

What Do Food Labels Really Mean?

By now, you probably realize that there is a lot of scary stuff in our food. Bovine Growth Hormone, MSG, sodium nitrate, and butylated hydroxyanisole are just some of the worst ones which top the list. As a consumer, you want to avoid these ingredients and purchase the purest, healthiest food available.

Product labels are supposed to make this task easier.  Unfortunately, product labels often just end up confusing us more than they help. Terms like “organic”, “natural”, and “fresh” are slapped across your products, but what do these terms really mean, and how do you read food labels?


Who Sets the Rules for Food Labels?

In the USA, there are two agencies which work together to regulate food labels. They are the FDA (which regulates most food items) and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (which regulates meat and poultry products). The purpose of these regulations is to prevent false advertising and promote consumer safety. 

Some terms regulated by the FDA have strict definitions, but as the FDA admits on their website, the terms “natural,” “healthy,” and “organic” often cause confusion. Barbara Schneeman, Director of the FDA's Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements says:

"Consumers seem to think that 'natural' and 'organic' imply 'healthy, but these terms have different meanings from a regulatory point of view."

For example, a product could meet all of the regulatory requirements to be called “organic,” but still be incredibly unhealthy. The same goes with foods which are “natural” or “fresh.”

So, while these terms can be useful in helping you determine which foods are the healthiest choices, never forget that the FDA is a regulatory body and not a health advisory body. You’ve got to think beyond the label to determine what really is the healthiest choice for you.


“Natural” Foods

When it comes to reading food labels, the term “natural” is one of the most useless. The FDA hasn’t set a definition for it, so food manufacturers are free to slap it on virtually anything they want. You can find it on foods like potato chips, cookies, and sauces which are highly processed and far from any truly natural state. 

An "all natural" food label

On the FDA website, they simply say this of the meaning of “natural” on food labels:

"The agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."

The one place where natural does mean something is on meat and poultry products (this includes eggs). The USDA FSIS defines “natural” as:

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed."

Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as ‘no artificial ingredients; minimally processed’).”

Again, don’t take the term “natural” too seriously, even when you see it even on products like chicken. For example, there was that case in 2010 where manufacturers injected chicken meat with a saline solution to make it weigh more, but they were still allowed to call the chicken “natural.”

VERDICT: Unreliable


“Fresh” Label

Unlike the term “natural,” the term “fresh” actually is regulated by the FDA. But chances are that the regulatory definition of “fresh” doesn’t match the one which comes to mind when you read the label.

Most consumers would assume that a product labeled as “fresh” would be raw or unprocessed.  Or, some might think that it means the product has never been frozen. This isn’t exactly the case.

For a food to be labeled fresh, it must meet these requirements:

  • Is in its raw state
  • Not be processed or preserved
  • For frozen foods, it was frozen while still fresh (but may have been blanched first)
  • For poultry, it must never had a core temperature below 26 degrees F

If you see the term “fresh” on a jar of salsa or pasta sauce, then it will actually be made from raw ingredients. However, there are a lot of exceptions to the rules about how “fresh” can be used.

“Fresh milk,” for example, can still be pasteurized. The FDA’s reasoning behind this is that consumers commonly understand that milk is pasteurized. The FDA also allows foods which are treated in the following ways to still be labeled as “fresh”:

  • Coated with wax or another approved coating
  • Have been sprayed with pesticides post-harvest
  • Have been washed with a mild chlorine or mild acid wash (for produce)
  • Have been treated with ionizing radiation (for raw foods)

As you can see, you still need to be skeptical when you see the term “fresh” on a food label.  And don’t expect to see “mild acid wash” on the ingredients list of the label either!

VERDICT: Somewhat reliable


“Organic” Label

This is the strictest food label, and will give you the most information about the purity of the food, at least in regards to chemicals and GMOs. The use of the term “organic” is regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Farmers and manufacturers using the USDA Organic label are subject to audits and have strict rules for keeping production logs.

A USDA Organic label


Organic Produce Requirements: 

  • Grown with no pesticides
  • Grown with natural fertilizers (such as manure instead of chemical fertilizers)
  • Grown with no chemical herbicides; weeds are controlled with natural methods
  • Grown with no insecticides
  • Are non-GMO

Organic Meat and Poultry Product Requirements:

  • No antibiotics are given to the animals
  • No hormones are given to the animals
  • Animals are given only organic feed
  • No GMOs are given to the animals (such as GMO feed)
  • Livestock and dairy cows must graze on pasture for at least 4 months out of the year
  • Chickens must have access to the outdoors, fresh air, freedom of movement, and direct sunlight

If it is chemicals and GMOs that you are worried about, then buy organic whenever you can. But be warned that not all products bearing the organic label are the same. The USDA allows four different situations where the term “organic” can be used. The USDA Organic label can only be used for the first two situations:

1)      100% Organic: This means that ALL ingredients in the product are organic.

2)      Organic: This means that at least 95% of the ingredients in the product are organic.

3)      Made with Organic Ingredients: Contains at least 70% organic ingredients. These products can NOT use the USDA Organic label!

4)      Organic Ingredients: Three of the organic ingredients must be listed under the ingredient section. These products also may not use the USDA Organic label.

In regards to meat and poultry products, note that the term “organic” is not the same as “free range,” “cage free,” or “pasture-raised.” While organically-raised animals might be in better conditions than conventionally-raised animals (because it is hard to raise an animal organic in overcrowded conditions), the organic label has nothing to do with animal welfare. For that, you would need to dig into a whole new set of food labels.

VERDICT: Reliable


How Can You Make the Best Decisions?

Learning the legal definitions of “natural,” “fresh,” and “organic” is a good start – but there are a lot of other labels on food too. 

Yeah, it can be tough to make smart buying decisions!

The nonprofit advocacy group Food and Water Watch has some good advice on food labels.  They break down a lot of the commonly-used food labels, such as “cage free” and “hormone free,” into groups based on usefulness. You can download their factsheet here.

In the meantime, you can take control of what you feed yourself and your family by growing your own produce. You’d be surprised how easy it can be with technology like the Grobo system to help. Learn more about Grobo here.


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