What Does That Food Label Really Mean?
Your Kitchen Cabinets Decoded

By: Kealia Reynolds

You’ve likely come across food claims like “100% organic” or “No hormones added” that may seem like marketing fluff meant to tempt consumers into buying, but most labels are tightly regulated and can inform consumers of a food’s nutritional value, health claims, and manufacturing process. With new food label terms emerging, it’s important to stay up-to-date on label claims to make informed choices when buying products for you and your family.

Which agencies regulate what?

In general, the FDA oversees labeling of packaged foods and seafood, while the USDA governs fresh produce, meat, poultry, and dairy foods. Any product including packaged goods that claims to be “organic” must meet standards set by the USDA.

Popular food label terms decoded

Organic

Regulated by: USDA

For a product to be organic, it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. According to Jacquelyn Nyenhuis, a registered dietician at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine and an expert in culinary medicine, the other 5% must be from an approved list from the USDA.

An organic product must be grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest (this includes most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides). If a grower has to use a synthetic substance, it must be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment. It also must be grown with fewer pesticides than conventionally farmed products and no synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms are allowed during production.

For meat to be considered organic, farm animals must be fed organic feed and raised without the routine use of antibiotics. Additionally, processed foods labeled “organic” cannot contain arti­ficial ingredients unless they go through a rigorous review process and have no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

100% organic

Regulated by: USDA

Foods labeled “100% organic” must consist only of organic ingredients and processing aids (excluding salt and water). Most raw, unprocessed farm products or value-added farm products that contain “no added ingredients,” like grain flours or rolled oats, can be designated 100% organic.

Made with organic ingredients

Regulated by: USDA

If this label is present, the product must consist of at least 70% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Thirty percent of the ingredients can be non-organic. None of the ingredients can be produced with sewage-sludge-based products or ionizing radiation and all ingredients must be produced without GMOs. Food products with the “Made with organic ingredients” label can’t use the USDA organic seal, but must identify the USDA-accredited certifying agent. You can look for the identity of the certifier on a packaged product for verification that the product meets USDA organic standards.

Natural

Regulated by: FDA

The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. This policy doesn’t explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also doesn’t consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.

This label has become a very common marketing term used by food companies to sell products. According to Nyenhuis, studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay 30 cents more for peanut butter when they are told it’s natural. “Most people think ‘natural’ on a label means that there’s an independent group who determines what is ‘natural.’ That is not true,” says Nyenhuis.

According to Nyenhuis, the FDA won’t pursue claims when this label is used as long as the product doesn’t contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Labels are evaluated to prevent mislabeling, but no inspections are conducted and producers are not required to be certified.

All-natural

Regulated by: FDA

According to Nyenhuis, the FDA doesn’t differentiate between “natural” and “all-natural.” It is to be assumed that foods with this label are not any different than natural foods.

American Humane Certified

Regulated by: The American Humane Certified Program

This seal, given by American Humane, determines if farm animals were given humane treatment. It’s usually found alongside terms like pasture-raised, free-range, and grass-fed. American Humane standards are based upon the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare and over 200 rigorous, science-based standards that cover everything from adequate space to air and water quality.

Pasture-raised

Regulated by: USDA

This term alone does not have any meaning. Look for this label in combination with the American Humane Certified seal. Together, they mean that animals must be outside every day and have lots of space to roam.

Free-range

Regulated by: USDA

Similar to pasture-raised, this term alone has no meaning, though it does imply that animals get to move freely outdoors. Look for the free-range label in conjunction with the American Humane Certified seal—together, they mean that animals have sufficient space to roam outdoors.

This labeling is very minimally regulated. The USDA requires that the producer be able to demonstrate that the animals are allowed access to the outside and aren’t contained. No applications or certifications are required.

Grass-fed

Not regulated: The USDA defines “grass fed” as it applies to labeling but does not regulate it in any way.

Grass-fed animals are raised primarily on ranges rather than feedlots. This means that the animal could be contained as long as it’s allowed to graze. If an animal was “grain-fed,” it was probably raised in a feedlot and contained for most of its life.

No antibiotics / Raised without antibiotics

Regulated by: USDA

This claim, used only on red meat, poultry, and egg packages, means that animals were not given antibiotics in their feed, water, or by injection. According to Nyenhuis, “Farmers and ranchers are required to take care of their animals when they’re sick. But that being said, all meat purchased in the US and intended for people to eat has no antibiotics in it.” To add the “no antibiotics” label, producers must provide documentation indicating the animal was raised without the use of antibiotics. This label and “No Growth-Promoting Antibiotics” are considered the same.

No hormones added

Regulated by: USDA

This label means that steroid hormones (i.e. estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and the synthetic versions of these naturally occurring hormones) were not administered to the animals. Steroid hormone implants are not permitted in the production of pork, chicken, and turkey. The USDA allows a “no added hormones” claim on these products, but only when accompanied by a qualifying statement such as “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry (or pork).”

“All poultry and hogs are free of added hormones even if [the product] does not have a label saying ‘Hormone-Free.’ It’s illegal to give hormones to these animal groups intended for human consumption,” says Nyenhuis.

The USDA requires that labels on beef and sheep with a “no added hormones” claim be approved by USDA staff. USDA staff conducts a one-time desk audit (reviewing paperwork submitted by the company) but does not conduct annual audits or on-farm inspections. Third-party certification of the claim is not required.

GMO claims

Regulated by: FDA

GMO (genetically modified organism) labels may be present on foods produced without bioengineering. These claims are monitored and regulated by the FDA. Here are some terms deemed acceptable by the FDA:

  • “Not bioengineered.”
  • “Not genetically engineered.”
  • “We do not use ingredients that were produced using modern biotechnology.”

100% whole grain

Regulated by: FDA

A product with this label should contain exclusively whole grains and should have whole-wheat flour (or another whole grain) listed as the first ingredient.

Made with whole grains

Regulated by: FDA

This means a product might contain only a small amount of whole grain—the remaining grains can be refined. Refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ, to give grains a finer texture and longer shelf life. However, the milling process removes dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. If you want an exclusively whole-grain product, choose one with the label, 100% whole grain.

Low

This claim is regulated by the FDA and can refer to calories, total fat, saturated fat, sugars or cholesterol. Here are some common ways the term appears:

  • Low sodium—Low-sodium products guarantee 140 mg or less of sodium per serving.
  • Very low sodium—Products with very low sodium have 35 mg or less per serving.
  • Low fat—This term refers to three grams or less of fat per serving.
  • Low saturated fat—These products contain one gram or less of low-saturated fat per serving, with no more than 15% of calories coming from saturated fat.
  • Low cholesterol—This can be used if a product has 20 mg or less per serving and only when a food contains two grams or less of saturated fat per serving
  • Low calorie—Products are considered low-calorie if they have 40 calories or less per serving.

Free

This term is regulated by the FDA and means that a food product lacks a perceived negative quality. Here are four popular examples:

  1. Sugar free—A sugar-free product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving (this includes natural sugars from fruit or milk). Sugar-free products can still contain artificial sweeteners.
  2. Gluten free—When a manufacturer chooses to put “gluten-free” on food packaging, the item must be less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. The food products covered by the gluten-free labeling rule are all FDA-regulated foods, dietary supplements, and imported food products subject to FDA regulations.

  3. Fat free—A food that contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving is considered “fat-free.”

  4. Sodium free—A product that’s sodium-free or salt-free has less than five mg of sodium per serving. This shouldn’t be confused with reduced sodium, which means that the product has a 25% less sodium level than other foods.

Other nutrient terms regulated by the FDA

Unsweetened

This means that no sugars or artificial sweeteners have been added to the product. However, the product could still contain naturally occuring sugars like fructose, glucose, or lactose.

Trans fat

Under current FDA rules, foods can have up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving and still be considered “free” or “zero” trans fats.

Zero calorie

A product must contain fewer than five calories per serving to be labeled “calorie-free” or “zero-calorie.”

Healthy

Manufacturers can use “healthy” on labels if the product has a fat profile makeup of predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats or contains at least 10% of the daily value of potassium or vitamin D.

Good source / excellent source

If a food contains 10%–19% of the daily value of a certain nutrient, it is considered a “good source.” An “excellent source” claim may be placed on a food that has at least 20% of the daily value of a certain nutrient.

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