Making Healthy Choices

Organic? Cage-Free? What 7 Food Labels Actually Mean

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By Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN

From nutrition data to health claims and certifications it can be tough to differentiate fact from fluff when it comes to food labels.

Certain terms, such as “organic” and “gluten-free,” are strictly regulated by agencies including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Others are voluntary seal and certification programs. Still others are manufacturer-driven marketing strategies. When you learn what product seals, certifications and claims mean, and who governs the wording, you’re better equipped to make purchasing decisions.

Product Labels Explained

Here are seven common terms that trip people up in the grocery store:

  1. Organic: “Organic” refers to how a product is grown. Products that sport the USDA “organic” certification have specific guidelines as to the type of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides that can be used, and they can’t be genetically modified or radiated. Organic poultry, meat and eggs have to be raised without growth hormones and antibiotics. In a product that’s “100 percent organic,” all of the ingredients have to be organically produced. In an “organic” product, 95 percent of the ingredients are organically produced. And if the product says, “made with organic ingredients,” at least 70 percent of the ingredients in the package must be organically produced. But the difference between organic and not ends at how the food is grown. The nutrient composition of organic and non-organic foods is similar. So things like organic cookies have the same nutrient composition as non-organic cookies and should be consumed in moderation.
  1. Grass-fed: All cows are fed grass. But on a label, the term implies that a cow has been fed only grass throughout its life. Grass-fed” is not a government designation; the USDA stopped auditing farms for grass feeding in 2016. A few verifying agencies, including the American Grass-fed Association and Food Alliance, have stepped up and placed seals on qualifying foods. But a “grass-fed” seal doesn’t offer any information about whether an animal received hormones or what conditions it was raised in.
  1. Cage-free: The hens laying cage-free eggs live in an open barn with bedding material, perches and nest boxes to lay their eggs. They may still be in close quarters with other hens, they’re just not in cages.
  1. Free-Range: This term is regulated by the USDA and can be used on any meat or poultry food product. The term can be used if the animals have continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for over 51 percent of the animals’ lives, but does not assure that the animal actually went outdoors.
  1. Non-GMO: Because of a law passed in 2016, food manufacturers will soon need to disclose genetically modified ingredients in their products. In the meantime, consumers who are concerned about GMOs can purchase products that contain a non-GMO Project stamp. But beware: The stamp is often found on foods that never could contain GMOs because to date, only 10 foods have been approved for genetic modification.
  1. Gluten-Free: Foods that carry “gluten-free” labeling must have no more than 20 parts per million of gluten. Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye and barley – and for most people, eating gluten-containing foods isn’t a problem. However, if you have the autoimmune condition called celiac disease, eating gluten-containing foods can have devastating consequences.
  1. All Natural: There’s no regulatory definition for the term “natural,” but that doesn’t mean you won’t see it on labels. With so many foods claiming to be “natural,” but without a standard definition, the FDA is starting to crack down. While the FDA once considered “natural” to mean nothing added or synthetic (including color additives) the agency is seeking information and comments from the public on the use of this term in food labeling.

Some other statements you might see that have no verified definition include:

  • Doctor-recommended
  • Naturally raised or naturally grown
  • Local
  • Sustainable
  • Wholesome

Related Topic: 5 Food & Drink Trends for 2018

Read the Whole Label

With any term on food labels, marketing is usually at play. As with all foods, it’s important to view the information on a label as a whole and not get seduced by fancy packaging or health claims. Your best tools: The nutrition facts label and ingredient list.

Keep the foods you’re eating in context so you’re not just viewing one piece of information – like whether food is organic or gluten-free. You’re making food decisions based on the entire label and in the context of your entire diet.

To learn how to make better food decisions, work with a registered dietitian nutritionist at Henry Ford. Visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

You can also read more nutrition and fitness advice in our EatWell and MoveWell sections, so subscribe to get all the latest tips.