Decoding Food Label Lingo

March 9, 2016

Given the explosion of information on food packaging over the last 10 – 20 years, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed by the incredible number of labels on grocery store shelves. From coffee to produce to baby food, nearly every company is going out of its way to let you know how natural, organic, gluten-free, and 100% amazing their products are. But, are the labels real or are they clever marketing tricks?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a little bit of both. Some food labels are part of regulations created by the government to ensure food safety, quality, and other important guidelines are met. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the primary entities involved in food regulation. American regulations are not as tight as European ones, however, where countries like Italy take such great pride in their products like olive oil and wine, they have to meet extremely strict quality standards in order to even have labels such as “extra virgin” attached to them (it’s actually big business for organized crime too—check out this fascinating 60 Minutes segment from earlier this year on food fraud in Italy).

Other labels are not required by law, and some of them are even downright deceiving. If you’re really interested in seeing how much thought goes in to food labeling, you can find an extensive (very extensive) guide prepared by the FDA on their website. Here’s a crash course in food labeling to help better inform you on your next shopping trip:

USDA Organic
This label actually carries some weight. Federal law requires food producers who claim their food is organic to meet specific qualifications and standards which are set in statute. Everything from growing, handling, and feeding of animals and plants (especially as it pertains to the use of pesticides and other chemicals) must comply with these laws or face potential penalties such as suspension or revocation of their certification. All organic products are by definition free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The non-GMO label is one of the more confusing in this list. Although its intent was not to pit organic-labeled food against a different class of “non-GMO certified” foods, it has, in effect, been the outcome. Price-conscious consumers who also want to stay true to their values when it comes to food sources often see the non-GMO labeled food as a cheaper alternative to the more expensive organic products. An NPR story from 2014 tried to explain why this has happened, with costs being the primary explanation, or as one organic food company executive put it: “We call it trading down.”

The first of several labels which currently have very few qualifications or standards attached to them. Although the FDA is currently seeking comment on creating an official definition for the term “natural”, it has objected to its use in products containing “added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances”. Depending on the outcome of the public comment period, it’s possible the FDA will become less lenient on companies who choose to label products as “natural” purely for marketing purposes.

____ Free, Low____, and Reduced/Less_____
These three are most often seen on food packaging being marketed as healthy or more nutritious alternatives to certain foods. Although they may seem like subjective terms, they actually have specific caloric and nutrition standards that must be met in order to qualify for the label. The problem, however, is the actual criteria are difficult to understand and rely on something called Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACC), which are all measured using a bizarre combination of the metric system and kitchen measuring rather than the standard measuring system most Americans are used to (grams and cups instead of pounds and ounces). This all makes for a confusing system that can leave consumers scratching their heads, but fortunately there are resources to help navigate the complex world of “better-for-you” foods.

Free-Range, Cage-Free, and Sustainable
Many of us wrestle with ethical dilemmas when it comes to eating meat, poultry (including chicken eggs), and fish. Separate from the organic issue is the debate over how the animals we eat are raised and cared for before they wind up on the kitchen table. In an age when ecologically-minded consumers are hyperaware of these issues, labels have been created to help—but as we’ve seen with other “helpful” terms, sometimes it only leads to confusion. For instance, NPR took a look at the myriad labels on the side of egg cartons and found a lot of them don’t even mean anything. It turns out “pasture-raised” might be the best choice if you’re looking for chickens living in some semblance of an idyllic farm setting, but it’s not without its own set of pitfalls. Butchered poultry labeled free-range actually have certain guidelines that must be met (we won’t get into the compare and contrast here, but it’s only slightly better than what you’d imagine a massive chicken farm might look like.)

Another label, “Sustainably-raised”, can apply to poultry or livestock, but is usually seen in seafood. The issue of overfishing has become a bigger and bigger problem in the last few years, especially since the effects of climate change have begun to wreak havoc on oceanic ecosystems and the communities that rely on fishing to survive. Whole Foods Market, one of the biggest “natural” (there’s that word!) grocery store chains, boasts about its own “aquaculture”, and claims consumers can be confident about their fish being farmed responsibly. But as with anything on this list, it’s up to you to do your own homework, and know what you’re buying!

Do you have any labels you’re dying to know about that we missed in this list? Leave it in the comments, and we’ll do some more digging!