Because we have food allergies in our household and I prefer to buy only the most healthful foods possible, I have spent an awful lot of time reading labels and nutritional data. (Trust me: you would not want to go food shopping with me … ever.) Yet even with hours upon hours of staring at products, it is completely understandable when labels get confusing.
Is it organic? Is it all-natural? What does all-natural mean, anyway? What does any of it mean? If you've ever wondered about the truth behind common food labels in the grocery store, well, mystery solved. Below are 8 labels you may run into - decoded!
According the FDA:
"From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth."
Because of that, the FDA has not set defined expectations for the term "natural" or alternatives such as, "all natural" and "100% natural." The government generally does not object to the term being used if the item does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. The item likely contains mostly natural ingredients, but I'd recommend reading the ingredient list carefully and use your own judgment.
If a food item uses the "USDA Organic" seal on its packaging, it has received a certification from a USDA approved agency, and at least 95% of the ingredients in the product are organic. For eggs and animal byproducts, it means that the animals are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program.
What exactly does "organic" mean? According to the USDA:
"Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity."
In other words, it does not contain hormones, chemicals, or other questionable substances.
3. Made with Organic Ingredients
An Organic Ingredients label on a package typically means that at least 70% of the ingredients used to make the product are organic. Organic ingredients are listed on the label and are usually found within the first few ingredients on the list because those are the ones most highly concentrated in the product.
4. DHA or Omega-3 Fortified
DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid, found in the brain, eyes, and heart. Studies confirm that we can all benefit from an adequate supply of DHA for such issues as brain health, skin cancer, psychological well-being and chronic inflammation. However, while omega-3 fatty acids are naturally found in fish like salmon, the average American does not get an adequate amount in their diet. Therefore, foods such as milk and oils are now being fortified with DHA so that consumers can get more of this fatty acid through the foods they eat and drink daily.
5. Cage Free and Free Range
Cage Free and Free Range generally appeal to those who prefer to shop humanely. There is not necessarily a health implication with these labels. Egg cartons labeled "cage-free" means that the hens live inside barns rather than cages. The hens generally do not have access to the outdoors. Cartons labeled "free-range" poultry products means that the hens are kept uncaged inside of barns with some outdoor access. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed (unless, that is, the product is also labeled as organic). These statements comes from the manufacturer and not the USDA or a third-party certifier.
6. Grade A
This is a claim you will see on many egg cartons. "Grade A" or "AA" eggs are not necessarily healthier than any other eggs. The statement on the carton means that someone from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (known as a "grader") visited the egg-packing facility and gave the eggs a high score on size, quality and color.
7. Whole Grain
Lots of products say that they contain whole grains, but not all of them are certified and many still contain a large portion of unrefined grains. The Whole Grains Council has two stamps for certified products. The "100% Whole Grain" stamp means that all of its grain ingredients are made of whole grains. Products that have the "Whole Grains" stamp contain at least 8 grams of whole grain but may also contain some refined grain. Items that contain much larger amounts of whole grain must use this stamp if it also contains other flours.
In 2013, voluntary "gluten-free" claims on food were standardized, so today, they all must adhere to the same definition. In order to use the term "gluten-free" on its label, the food must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. Gluten are proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and potentially in some other grains or combinations of grains. There has been much debate as to whether a gluten-free diet is beneficial, but if you ask me, I am all for it. If you are debating, consider these 8 Reasons Why We Go Gluten-Free (Even When We Don't Need To). By the way, the FDA rule also applies to foods with the claims of "no gluten," "free of gluten," and "without gluten."
-By Jessica Cohen