Food labels got you loopy? This guide should help you get label literate.
This is the big one. It is a verified and meaningful label regulated by the USDA. Standards for organic labeling vary by product, and some states have stricter standards for their labels.
Organic fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains are non-genetically modified (non-GMO), grown without synthetic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers and have not been irradiated.
Organic milk is from cows given 100% organic feed for at least one year. At least 30% of the cow’s diet must come from allowing cows to graze on grass.
Organic meat and poultry is raised on 100% organic feed with no animal products. Animals can access the outdoors and are given no growth hormones, antibiotics or other drugs. Meat must not be irradiated.
Organic packaged foods have three levels of classification:
- 100% Organic: All ingredients are organic.
- Organic: At least 95% of ingredients are organic.
- Made with organic ingredients: At least 70% of ingredients are organic.
ALL-NATURAL OR NATURAL
A survey by Consumer Reports found people believed this label was more meaningful than the organic label; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Meat and poultry can’t contain artificial ingredients or added color during processing. Any other product can label itself “natural” as long as it doesn’t contain artificial colorants, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. It’s a low bar even for processed foods and is essentially meaningless when it comes to any whole-food ingredient.
This label is used for chicken and eggs. The birds are allowed to freely roam a building, room or enclosed area. They have unlimited access to food and water and continuous access to the outdoors when they can produce eggs. It does not mean they necessarily have enough room to move around comfortably. Since chickens raised for meat aren’t kept in cages, this label on poultry is meaningless.
Birds are given access to the outdoors but this does not mean they will necessarily go outdoors or that the outdoor space is large or allows for natural behaviors.
Animals get the majority of their foods from grass throughout their life, but can be supplemented with grains. There are also 100% grass-fed labels, meaning the animal has not been fed supplemental grain. There are a lot of grass-fed labels out there; here are a few with real meaning behind them. It does not limit the use of growth hormones, antibiotics or drugs — if that’s what you want, look for the organic label.
READ MORE > IS GRASS-FED BEEF BETTER?
This label is most often seen on poultry, eggs, dairy products, beef and pork. It is meant to convey that the animal spent most of its life on pasture. For dairy and eggs, there is no standard or requirement, rendering it meaningless. For meat and poultry, producers are required to explain their practices on their labels, but that information it is not third-party verified. For dairy and beef products, the “grass-fed” label is a regulated and verified option.
The food (or cosmetic product) is not a genetically modified organism (GMO) or is not made with ingredients that are GMOs. Note, however, it may contain up to 0.9% GMO by the Non-GMO Project’s definition.
This label is most often seen on chocolate, coffee, tea and spices. The item or ingredient is grown and processed in a way that promotes the following in the country that grows it: community empowerment, economic development, social responsibility (no child labor and support for worker’s rights) and environmental stewardship. This label is not regulated by the government; different labeling groups have their own standards. You can see which ones are meaningful here.
Lots of common food labels that have intuitive meanings come with legal meanings regulated by the USDA. See which ones are worth looking for to meet your health goals.
Whole-grain/whole-wheat: Grains (or foods made from grains) utilizing all parts of the naturally occurring grain or seed to maximize fiber and B-vitamins. At least 51% of total weight in the food must be whole-grain. Look for 100% whole-grain or 100% whole-wheat for the best nutrition.
Multigrain: Food made from more than one type of grain. No matter how many grains it claims to have (seven, 12, 20), this label does not mean it is whole-grain.
Calorie Free: Each serving contains less than 5 calories.
Low-calorie: Each serving contains 40 calories or less.
Reduced Calorie: A product contains 25% fewer calories compared to the original item with its original serving size.
Light or Lite: A product contains 33% fewer calories compared to the original with its original serving size.
Low-fat: A serving contains 3 grams of fat or less.
Reduced-fat: A serving contains 25% less fat compared to the original food with its original serving size.
Fat-free: A serving contains less than 1/2 gram of fat per serving.
Cholesterol-free: A serving contains less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol.
Transfat-free: Less than 1/2 gram of trans-fat per serving.
Excellent source of …: A food has 20% or more of the daily value of that vitamin or mineral per serving.
Good source of …: A food has 10-19% of the daily value of that vitamin or mineral per serving.
Enriched with …: The vitamin or mineral was removed during processing and was then added back into the food.
Fortified with …: The vitamin or mineral is not naturally in the food so it’s being added.
Sodium-free: There are less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Low-sodium: There are 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
Very Low-sodium: Each serving has 35 milligrams or less of sodium.
Lightly Salted: 50% less sodium was added to this food, compared to the original food with its original serving size.
Sugar-free: Each serving contains less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving. It can contain artificial sweeteners to boost sweetness.
Low-sugar: There is no established definition.
Reduced-sugar: A product contains 25% less sugar compared to the original item with its original serving size.