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Deciphering Food Labels

Posted Oct 13 2009 10:06pm
Over the past few years it seems like the labeling of "natural" foods has gotten more and more confusing. As it has become cool to be "green", corporations are spending more and more money marketing their products as "green" and "pure", when in reality there is nothing natural about the products.
The words "organic" and "natural" as they apply to food have basically become a joke. There is little regulation by the FDA concerning the labeling and evaluation of products and many laws exist that prohibit truthful labeling by farmers.
My intent in this post is to break down some of the common food labels so that you can make better, more informed decisions at the grocery store, and not fall prey to this marketing game.
Natural/All-Natural - According to the USDA, this means that the item does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients/preservatives and is minimally processed. There is no regulation concerning the use of antibiotics, hormones, and chemicals. There isn't a certification process for labeling, so essentially this label means nothing and the FDA currently does not have plans to establish a clear definition or monitor the usage of these terms in food labeling.

Organic - There are four separate categories in organic food labeling:
  • 100% Organic - refers to single ingredient foods, like produce and dairy products. May bear the USDA seal.
  • Organic - refers to foods containing more than one ingredient. 95-100% of those ingredients must be organic. May bear the USDA seal.
  • Made with organic ingredients - refers to foods containing more than one ingredient. 70% of those ingredients must be organic. May not bear the USDA seal.
  • Contains organic ingredients - Foods with less than 70% organic ingredients. May not bear the USDA seal.

Look for this seal on "100% Organic" and "Organic" foods:

Grass-Fed - This label means the animal was raised primarily on a pasture. There is no regulation concerning where and how long they are allowed to graze.

Eggs - The labels on eggs bought in the grocery store can be very confusing, because there are so many words used to describe the living conditions of the birds, as well as their diets.
  • Certified Organic - The chickens are required to have outdoor access, but there is no regulation concerning the length of time and conditions. The birds must be fed a vegetarian diet, without pesticides and hormones. A third party verifies compliance.
  • Free Range - This usually means the birds are kept in a barn or warehouse uncaged and have some outdoor access. This label tells you nothing about the diet of the bird. There is no USDA standard, therefore a third party does not verify compliance.
  • Cage-Free/Free-Roaming - The same as free range, except the chickens usually do not have outdoor access.
  • Vegetarian-Fed - The chickens are fed a vegetarian diet, not necessarily organic. There are no restrictions on the living conditions of the bird.
  • Natural - Essentially, this means nothing.
  • Fertile - The hens lived with roosters. This label tells you nothing about the diet of the birds.
  • Omega-3 Enriched - The birds are fed a diet enriched with things like flaxseed and algae.
Non-GMO - Non-organic food products are not required to be labeled as made with genetically modified ingredients in the United States. In Europe, Australia and Asia, there are restrictions on labeling and some countries have gone so far as to prohibit the sale of GMO foods. There are no set standards for labeling and auditing products that contain the words non-GMO in the United States at this time.

  • rbGH-free - Milk that does not contain the recombinant bovine growth hormone. In Ohio it is illegal to label milk as "rbGH-free". It must instead be labeled "from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones" and must also contain a disclaimer stating that milk from cows injected with hormones is the same as milk without the hormones, even though it is not true.
  • Pasteurized - This means the milk is heated to kill all bacteria.
  • Ultra-pasteurized - The milk was heated to 280 degrees Fahrenheit for several seconds.
  • Homogenized - Milk that has gone through a process to keep the fat from separating.
  • Raw - Milk that is neither pasteurized nor homogenized.
  • Stickers beginning with the numbers 3 and 4 - conventional produce. This is produce that is grown using pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals.
  • Stickers beginning with the number 8 - genetically modified produce.
  • Stickers beginning with the number 9 - organic produce. This does not mean the produce is 100% free of pesticide residue, but does mean that the levels are significantly lower than conventional produce.
What does all of this mean to my family?
We try to purchase most of our produce, meat, milk and eggs from local farmers, so we know for a fact where it is coming from, the living conditions of any animals, the diets of the animals, and whether or not the food it truly organic. It seems to be the only way you can really know for sure, since food labeling can be very deceptive.
When shopping at the grocery store I tend to ignore all labels and focus more on the ingredients. If I pick up a processed food that says "organic", I know that up to 5% of the ingredients can be non-organic. You can usually spot them, as they are labeled as "natural flavors" or something similar. Those natural ingredients can be anything from MSG to GMO-soy, so I try to avoid products that contain them. I buy products that contain ingredients I can pronounce and that I know are good for me.
I also pay attention to the labelling of non-organic products. For example, most brands of organic milk are ultra-pasteurized. I refuse to drink ultra-pasteurized milk and usually drink raw milk from a friend's cow. But when we run out of raw milk and need something in a pinch, the milk from a local dairy farm that our grocery store sells is simply pasteurized, and the label also says that it does not contain any antibiotics or hormones. So, I prefer to purchase the non-organic milk (which also costs half as much as the organic).
The point is - read your labels. Don't just trust the front of a box or a TV commercial to tell you whether or not a product is good for you. Read the ingredients and research the companies from which you buy your food.


"A Brief Guide to Egg Carton Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare ." The Humane Society of the United States. Web. 20 Sept. 2009.
"Food labels what do the numbers mean? Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients Find Articles at BNET." Find Articles at BNET News Articles, Magazine Back Issues & Reference Articles on All Topics. Web. 20 Sept. 2009.

"Organic Food Labels: What does it all mean?" Blogs. Web. 20 Sept. 2009.
"What do food labels really mean? GreenCityBlueLake." GreenCityBlueLake Advancing sustainability in Northeast Ohio. Web. 20 Sept. 2009.
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