Decoding Food Labels

Decoding Food Labels

You’re trying to be an informed consumer, reading labels diligently and checking to make sure that the companies you buy from follow practices you consider ethical.. But when it comes to what’s on a product’s packaging, you might be a little surprised at what they really mean to say. Not all terms and labels are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). So even if the label says “all natural”, it could contain a very nasty surprise. Here are some of the more common labels and what they really mean:


When a product is labeled as organic, it’s actually one that’s overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture. There are strict requirements and conditions that have to be met for a product to be labeled organic. USDA organic-certified foods have undergone scrutiny and passed – they’re grown, raised and processed according to federal guidelines that oversee soil quality, livestock rearing, pest control, weed control and any additives to the final product.

As a general rule, organic growers tend to rely on natural substances (as opposed to synthetics) and farming methods that are more physical or biologically based (as opposed to mechanized). This doesn’t mean that the products are chemical free, necessarily, just that the chemicals used are naturally occurring. It also doesn’t mean that the practices used in raising livestock for egg or milk production are ethical, just that they’re less dependent on synthetic chemicals and mechanization than their non-organic counterparts.

All Natural

This is a label that’s not overseen by the USDA, but by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA does not regulate or issue “all natural” labels, nor does it have any process to certify whether a product is, indeed, all natural or not.

The FDA does not restrict use of an all-natural label, but it also doesn’t object to it as long as the product has no added colors, flavors or synthetic substances. When you see a product labeled “natural” or “all natural”, it could very well be highly processed, as long as it doesn’t contain additives or artificial colors.

Ethical, Humane, Free-Range

There’s a little bit of leeway in these claims, because while ethical claims do not have to be investigated by the FDA, they do require proof that the animals were raised a certain way. So if the poultry farmer who provides your eggs claims they’re from a hormone-free, antibiotic-free, free-range chicken, the facility holding the chickens would have to submit proof of those claims. And the FDA does not necessarily investigate as long as proper proof is submitted at the time the farmer asks for the labeling.

What does cage free vs. range free really mean?

If you’re looking for animal byproducts like milk, eggs and honey, look for products bearing independent, outside verification such as those certified humane by the Global Animal Partnership. The FDA requires proof of these conditions and the outside organization also evaluates the farm, too. It’s not a 100% guarantee that the animals providing your dairy are happy, but short of going to the farm and meeting them yourself, it’s the best you can get.

Whole Grain, Whole Wheat, Gluten Free

This is another set of claims that have to be backed up by proof to the FDA at the time a label is requested by the manufacturer. However, take note: labels using “all”, “100%” and “pure” do not necessarily have to be true. So a loaf of bread bearing a “100% whole wheat” label definitely does contain whole wheat, but it might not be 100%.

Similarly, whole-grain products do have to contain whole grains, but the FDA does not regulate the percentage of whole grains or whether the product is made solely from whole grains.
Gluten-free claims are also evaluated by the FDA. Since people with celiac disease rely on gluten-free food not containing any wheat or wheat byproducts, these claims are heavily regulated by the FDA.

New and Improved

This is another label that’s absolute bunk. Food growers and manufacturers don’t actually need to change anything in order to slap a “new and improved” label on their products.
When people see a label declaring a change, they’re more inclined to buy the product to see what’s new and what’s different — but sometimes the change isn’t for the better. A company can legally package something in a smaller container or a different colored bag and still call it new and improved.

Locally Grown, Sustainably Harvested

Neither the USDA nor the FDA regulates these claims. They’re too tough for the agencies to enforce and there are no set of standards governing what’s local or sustainable. One person might consider anything grown within 50 miles local, while another might think of only foods grown within a 10-mile radius as being local.

Similarly, sustainable harvesting means different things to different farmers and it means different things for different crops. A sustainably harvested pumpkin requires different growing practices than grapes for a sustainably harvested bottle of wine.

When dealing with claims about locality or harvesting practices, contact the company directly and learn more about it. Most companies are more than happy to back up their claims of being local and are willing to assuage your fears about their farming practices.

Labels at a Glance

While it’s tempting to look at labels and take their word as gospel, doing a little research into the companies you buy from goes a long way. Not all companies are dishonest, but they are all trying to get you to buy their product so they can make a living. When in doubt, ask questions. You can also get in touch with the USDA, FDA and individual companies and certifying organizations with any questions or concerns you may have.

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