Making Sense of Food Labels

What's in a label? A guide to understanding what natural, organic, free-range...really mean.

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What’s in a label? A guide to understanding what natural, organic, free-range, hormone-free…really mean.

From meat to dairy, produce to pasta, food labels tout all sorts of claims that probably shouldn’t be taken at face value. Here are some of the most common statements and how to know what you’re really getting in that package.

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A USDA organic seal is the highest stamp of organic approval. Technically speaking, this label ensures that the product is produced without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering. Any product with an “organic,” “100 percent organic,” or “made with organic [ingredient here]” label is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For those products made from less than 70 percent organic ingredients, the manufacturer must identify which specific ingredients are organic — but those products don’t get to boast the official seal of approval. The USDA organic standards also prohibit antibiotics and growth hormones in organic meats and poultry, and require 100 percent organic feed for livestock.

Cage-Free or Free-Range:
 Products stamped with “cage-free” or “free-range” means that the animals are given more freedom to move around. “Cage-free” is used mostly for eggs, while “free-range” can include anything from cows and chickens to pigs. There is a hitch, however. There is no governmental certification to guarantee that the meat labeled this way is indeed from humanely-treated, free-roaming animals — which means some companies can cash in on the higher prices these products command by making false “free-range” claims. Plus, some studies find that there’s not much difference in nutrition between these specialty eggs and conventional ones — research suggests eggs from caged and cage-free animals contain similar amounts of bacteria.

While there’s no USDA stamp of approval for products labeled “grass-fed,” the best definition of a grass-fed animal is one that has eaten nothing but its mother’s milk, fresh grass, and hay. Look for products with an American Grassfed Association or Animal Welfare Approved stamp, which guarantee the animal was raised on a family-owned pasture or range. However, the jury is out on the health benefits of such naturally raised animals: some studies show there’s no real health advantage of grass-fed beef, while others have found grass-fed beef to contain higher levels of healthy fatty acids and antioxidants.

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If a food product has  the USDA Organic certification, it’s usually pesticide-free, too. Unfortunately, that’s not always a guarantee: studies have found that even some organic produce can contain pesticide residue. For truly pesticide-free food, look for a pesticide residue-free label.

Hormone-Free and Antibiotic-Free:
There is a long list of health concerns tied to hormone-filled meat, from prenatal developmental problems to early puberty and infertility. Though the evidence isn’t always reliable, some studies have shown growth hormones from certain foods can disrupt human hormones and can even contribute to breast and prostate cancer. Again, a USDA Organic seal assures no hormones or antibiotics were used in the organic meat. But much like “free-range,” there’s no restriction about the term “hormone-free” or “antibiotic-free.” The best bet for finding hormone-free meat is to look for the USDA Organic seal.

Natural or All-Natural:
The term “natural” may be the most dubious of all — there’s no government regulation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or USDA for using the world on labels. “Natural” is a loose term for foods without synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and other additives. The word “natural” is only regulated when it comes to meat, since regulations require meat to have no preservatives and minimal processing. Again, food companies bank on the buzzword to bring in business— but they often over-exaggerate the claims. (Other industries aren’t immune either: cereal makers have recently been criticized for misleading the public with “all-natural” claims that don’t add up.)

Multigrain and Whole Grain:
We’ve all been told whole-wheat is healthier than the plain ol’ white,  but what about all those breads and crackers toting grainy goodness? Multigrain products are made with more than one type of grain, however, these grains are typically the refined kind, meaning they’ve been stripped of the healthiest parts of the grain (the bran and germ), and are not any healthier than white bread. In fact, dyes are often added to multigrain products to make them look healthier (or like whole-grain products). Whole-grain items, on the other hand, are made from whole grains. This means they contain all the natural nutrients in grains and have not been refined. The takeaway? Opt for whole-grain over multigrain for the healthiest choice!

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Unfortunately for those who have to maintain a strict gluten-free diet due to celiac disease or gluten intolerance, all products labeled “gluten-free” aren’t always entirely free of gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Because the FDA hasn’t yet set regulations for products labeled gluten-free, individual companies are coming up with their own definitions. Even groups offering gluten-free seals of approval (like the Gluten Free Certification Organization) choose to define the term in different ways: some products simply contain no gluten ingredients but are processed on the same equipment or in the same facility as gluten-filled products; some are tested to contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten; and others (the most strict) are tested to assure a gluten content of less than 5 ppm. The bottom line? Proceed with caution if staying away from gluten is important to you. The good news? The FDA plans to finish writing rules for gluten-free labeling before the end of the year.

Any other food labels that leave you scratching that noggin? Share those terms with us in the comments below or tweet @greatist and we’ll see what we can do about decoding them! 
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