Understanding Food Labels and Their Terminology


Let’s say you are trying to shop healthier for your family. You head out to the store for your weekly shopping trip, determined to come home with some healthier alternatives to the items in your pantry. However, when you get to the store, you find a multitude of products with different labels. Trying to determine which may be the best one to try is not always that easy. Products don’t just yell out from the aisles, “I’m the healthiest one! Buy ME!” I have spent an awful lot of time reading labels and nutritional data. (Trust me: you would not want to go food shopping with me … ever, just ask my husband). Yet even with hours upon hours of staring at products, it is completely understandable when labels get confusing. Is it organic? Is it all-natural? What does all-natural mean, anyway? What does any of it mean? If you’ve ever wondered about the truth behind common food labels in the grocery store, below are 13 labels you may run into and what they mean for your household.
According the FDA: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth." Because of that, the FDA has not set defined expectations for the term “natural” or alternatives such as, “all natural” and “100% natural." The government generally does not object to the term being used if the item does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. The item likely contains mostly natural ingredients, but I recommend reading the ingredient list carefully and use your own judgment. They are not required to be free of any particular ingredients based on this label.

usda - organic - explained

If a food item uses the “USDA Organic” seal on its packaging, it has received a certification from a USDA approved agency, and at least 95% of the ingredients in the product are organic. For eggs and animal byproducts, it means that the animals are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides not approved by the certifier, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Foods with the USDA Organic label can contain pesticides approved by the organic certifier. What exactly does “organic” mean? According to the USDA: “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” In other words, it does not contain hormones, chemicals, or other questionable substances. Sources: USDA.gov, NaturalGrocers.com, American Humane Society  
Made with Organic Ingredients
An Organic Ingredients label on a package typically means that at least 70% of the ingredients used to make the product are organic. Organic ingredients are listed on the label and are usually found within the first few ingredients on the list because those are the ones most highly concentrated in the product. Sources: USDA.gov, NaturalGrocers.com  
DHA or Omega-3 Fortified
DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid, found in the brain, eyes, and heart. Studies confirm that we can all benefit from an adequate supply of DHA for such issues as brain health, skin cancer, psychological well-being and chronic inflammation. However, while omega-3 fatty acids are naturally found in fish like salmon, the average American does not get an adequate amount in their diet. Therefore, foods such as milk and oils are now being fortified with DHA so that consumers can get more of this fatty acid through the foods they eat and drink daily. Source: LifesDHA.com
Cage Free and Free Range

Free_range_chicken_flock-understanding food labels

Cage Free and Free Range generally appeal to those who value knowing where their animal products come from. There is not necessarily a health implication with these labels. Egg cartons labeled "cage-free" means that the hens live inside barns rather than cages. The hens generally do not have access to the outdoors. Cartons labeled "free-range" poultry products means that the hens are kept uncaged inside of barns with some outdoor access. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed (unless, that is, the product is also labeled as organic). These statements come from the manufacturer and not the USDA or a third-party certifier. Sources: USDA.gov, American Humane Society  
Grade A
This is a claim you will see on many egg cartons. “Grade A” or "AA" eggs are not necessarily healthier than any other eggs. The statement on the carton means that someone from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (known as a "grader") visited the egg-packing facility and gave the eggs a high score on size, quality and color. Sources: WallStreetJournal.com, USDA.gov  
Whole Grain
Lots of products say that they contain whole grains, but not all of them are certified and many still contain a large portion of unrefined grains. The Whole Grains Council has two stamps for certified products. The “100% Whole Grain” stamp means that all of its grain ingredients are made of whole grains. Products that have the “Whole Grains” stamp contain at least 8 grams of whole grain but may also contain some refined grain. Items that contain much larger amounts of whole grain must use this stamp if it also contains other flours. Source: WholeGrainsCouncil.org  
Gluten-Free-Stamp-Feature_understanding food labels In 2013, voluntary “gluten-free” claims on food were standardized, as of today; they all must adhere to the same definition. In order to use the term "gluten-free" on its label, the food must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. Gluten are proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and potentially in some other grains or combinations of grains. There has been much debate as to whether a gluten-free diet is beneficial. By the way, the FDA rule also applies to foods with the claims of “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “without gluten." Source: FDA.gov  
GMO Free
GMO stands for “genetically modified organisms." Those plants with GMOs are created through a very common gene splicing technique (also known as genetic engineering), so even though they are considered to be made by nature, they have been chemically altered in the process of being created. The Non-GMO Project was created as a way to keep consumers informed of brands and products that are not sourced from GMOs. Goods that contain the Non GMO-Certified seal have gone through their verification process. Source: NonGMOProject.org  
No Added Hormones or Antibiotics
Organic products must be free of added hormones, so this label applies to conventional products. This claim does not have a certification process, so you will have to trust that the manufacturer does not source any ingredients for the product that contain antibiotics.   As you stand in the vast the isles of your local grocery store, choose the core principles that matter most in your household’s diet. If you are trying to avoid added sugars, artificial colors, hormones, or other chemicals, consider looking for the label that matches your nutrition priority. Do not assume every statement on the front of the packaging is a clear claim of optimal nutrition, especially if it is a processed food item.   Images courtesy of: Wikipedia    

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