What Food Labels Actually Mean: Breaking Down Natural, Organic, Cage-Free, etc

In the U.S. it is so hard to trust food labels because of our lax labeling laws. It is so important to always check the ingredients on everything you buy to make sure you're not buying any food product with unwanted ingredients. This post, however, will help you to identify what the different types of food labels mean so you know what to buy and what not to buy when grocery shopping. If you're detail oriented and want to know exactly how much fat or sodium has to be in a product to get a certain label you can find that information here and here.

Natural

For a product to get a "natural" label it has to have "minimal processing". This is defined as a process that does not fundamentally alter the product. This basically means nothing. If you process your jelly and the end product is still jelly, then it went through minimal processing even though it can be completely different than the starting product.

The product also cannot have artificial ingredients or added color. Again, there aren't definitions for what counts as an artificial ingredient so this is also untrustworthy. There has to be an explanation for why it's natural, such as "no high fructose corn syrup", and that's probably the single reason why natural is on the label.

Organic

According the USDA in order to get an organic label they have to "integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used." That sounds great and all, but there are a lot of "organic" pesticides and fertilizers that are still comparable to the horrible synthetic fertilizers. This is also the USDA that is deciding if their methods promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity, and their definitions of what falls into this are very lax.

Also, 5% of the product can contain non-organic agricultural product. When food says "made with organic ingredients" it only has to be 70% organic.

For a product to be labeled "100 percent organic," the USDA states that it must meet have all ingredients be certified organic, any processing aids must be organic, and the product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.

"The majority of raw, unprocessed farm products can be designated "100 percent organic" because the product has no added ingredients. Farm products that have no added ingredients, like flours and rolled oats, can also be labeled "100 percent organic." (livescience)

Long story short, you cannot always trust an organic label either.

Egg Labels: Cage-Free, Free-Range, Pasture-Raised, Organic

The Humane Society made this great graphic to explain egg labels in regards to animal welfare. As you can see, "natural" eggs means virtually nothing.

Fat

.5 grams of Trans Fat or less gets a fat-free label.

1 gram or less of Trans Fat gets a low fat label

A product with 25% less fat than a reference food gets a reduced fat label.

As a general tip I would avoid these foods. If they have one of these labels it is most likely processed, which you need to avoid, or it will have an obscene amount of sugar.

Sugar

Something really cool happened in May 2016. The FDA now requires labels to list added sugars to ingredients. This is a step in the right direction for labeling in the U.S., which is seriously lacking. Food producers don't have to comply until July 2018, however. Until then, sugar is regulated pretty much like fat.

Less than .5 grams of sugar per serving is sugar-free.

No added sugar is exactly what it means, nothing with sugar in it or sugar itself was added to the product. This, however, does not mean there is no sugar in it. For example, a strawberry may not have sugar added to it, but it does have a lot of sugar inside of it already.

A product with 25% less sugar per serving than a reference food gets a reduced sugar label.

Here are the different words used for sugar on food labels:

Anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sugar, syrup and white sugar, fructose, lactose and maltose. Fructose is sugar derived from fruit and vegetables; lactose is milk sugar; and maltose is sugar that comes from grain (reference).

 

If there are any other labels you want me to decipher for you just let me know and I'll add it to the list!