Nutrition labels are required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to provide accurate serving sizes, calories and fats per serving as well as specific details about vitamins, nutrients and added sugars. When you’re trying to eat more nutritious foods, cut refined carbs, avoid gluten or steer clear of genetically modified foods, nutrition labels provide a wealth of useful information.
A growing number of consumers are shopping for foods that meet their personal dietary preferences, such as gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan. However, while nutrition label language has been clearly defined, not all food labels are straightforward—some can be blatantly deceptive. Additionally, there are increasing concerns about the welfare of chickens, cows and other animals that provide food, including what they are fed and the conditions in which they are raised.
These consumer demands have led to more informative food labels, but in many cases, you may need to read between the lines to learn the truth about a given product. Some product claims are driven more by marketing than health, so while a product’s label might suggest that it is a good choice, the food itself may not be what it seems.
Here’s what you need to know about some common food label terms.
With all the concerns about potentially harmful artificial ingredients in food, it’s no surprise that organic food sales are increasing. Foods that are considered organic are produced without antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, bioengineering or artificial ingredients. A recent survey by Statista found that 44% of Americans actively try to include organic foods in their diet.
If you’re shopping for organic, know what to look for on the label. Foods labeled “USDA Organic” must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients; the remaining 5% must be on the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) approved list of ingredients. Boric acid, for example, may be used for pest control if there is no contact with the food or crops. Foods labeled “made with organic [ingredient]” contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The USDA strictly regulates organic product labeling, and food producers must pass annual inspections to keep their certifications.
A food labeled as “natural” must be a healthy choice, right? That’s what marketers want you to believe. According to the FDA, natural foods contain no artificial or synthetic ingredients. However, the policy doesn’t extend to production or processing methods, so these foods may have been produced with pesticides, pasteurization, irradiation or other decidedly non-natural factors. “Natural” does not indicate any nutritional or other health benefit.
Whether you must avoid gluten because you have celiac disease or you choose to do so as a personal preference, “gluten-free” can be a useful label when shopping for bread, crackers and other products that often contain wheat or other gluten-containing ingredients such as barley or soy sauce. Be aware, though, that using the term has become a popular marketing tactic and is popping up on foods that never contained gluten to begin with (such as poultry or produce). The label often comes with a higher price tag, so don’t fall into the trap of paying more for a food that is naturally gluten-free.
If you eat eggs, meat, poultry or dairy, you may prefer to buy from companies that raise their animals as humanely as possible. While the labels below may sound good for the animals, you might be surprised by what each term actually means.
Cage-free: Commonly seen on egg cartons, “cage-free” suggests that the eggs come from hens that are free to roam around all day rather than be confined to small cages. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Cage-free hens are not kept in cages but they may be raised in extremely tight, crowded pens or areas with very restricted movement.
Free-range or pasture-raised: Similarly, “free-range” and “pasture-raised” claims suggest that the animals range freely outdoors or in a pasture. This is not a regulated claim and there are no rules about where or when they can roam or for how long.
Grass-fed: Most dairy cows and beef cattle raised in the U.S. are fed a lot of grains including corn. “Grass-fed” means that the animals do eat fresh or dried grass but not necessarily exclusively. The USDA doesn’t regulate this term and there is no standard for how much of the diet is comprised of grass. Look for the “American Grassfed Association” or “AGA” label which certifies that the animals are raised on a pasture and eat grass and other plants rather than grains.
Certified Humane: The nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care uses this label to indicate that the animals have sufficient space and quality feed and that environmentally friendly production methods are used.
Animal Welfare Approved (AWA): This label from A Greener World, a nonprofit organization, certifies that animals are raised outdoors on an independent farm and receive no antibiotics unless ill.
By learning to decipher food label claims, you can take more control over what goes into your body.