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Food labels 101: What Organic, All-Natural, Non-GMO and Grass-Fed really mean

“Raised Cage-Free.” “Certified Organic.” “All-Natural.” “No Hormones.” These are some of the food labels you may notice in the poultry case at your local grocery store today. But what do they mean? Are they important? Is the product with these labels better or more nutritious than the one that doesn’t have it?

Deciphering food labels can be a daunting task. It is important to know what the labels mean and how they improve the nutritional value of the food, if at all.

Let’s explore some of the most common food labels and what they really mean, so you can make informed choices about what to put on your plate.

How food labels are regulated

Food labeling and advertising rules are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). 

The FTC prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” and in the case of food products, prohibits “any false advertisement” or “labeling that is false or misleading.” A few examples of common food labels include Grass-Fed, Good or Excellent Source of Vitamin A, and Heart-Healthy.

Depending on the type of label or claim, manufacturers may be required to submit the wording to the FDA and include a disclaimer stating the FDA has not evaluated the claims. 

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Reading and paying attention to food labels is necessary to compare products and make healthy choices when grocery shopping. Being aware of misleading terms on food packaging is essential.

No Antibiotics or No Hormones

For meat and poultry products, you may see the terms “No Antibiotics” or “No Hormones.” The USDA regulates the use of “No Antibiotics” and this label is only used on red meat, poultry and egg packages.

So, what does it really mean? Producers must provide documentation verifying the animal was raised without the use of antibiotics. Milk products should never display the “No Antibiotics” claim since milk cannot be sold if the cows have been treated with antibiotics. The FDA tests milk that arrives for processing to ensure it does not contain any antibiotic residue and is suitable for human consumption. 

Use of the term “No Hormones” depends on the type of animal and is also regulated by the USDA. This label may appear on beef if the producer can verify that no hormones were used to raise the cattle. Hormones are prohibited from being used in pigs or egg-laying hens; therefore, “No Hormones” cannot be displayed on pork and poultry products, unless the statement, “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones,” is included on the label too.

Grass-Fed

“Grass-Fed” is another food label used on beef products. This label indicates that the animal has had continuous access to pasture during the growing season and no access to grain. Most cows start out on pasture, drinking milk and eating grass. Typically, the cows are then moved to feedlots and fed grain-based diets based on corn and soy during the latter part of their lives.

Grass-fed cows, on the other hand, eat mostly grass. Grass-fed beef is lower in total fat, higher in certain vitamins and minerals, and higher in the healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The only way to ensure the cow has been grass-fed exclusively is to look for the “USDA Process Verified” shield. This guarantees that the product meets qualifications for “Grass-Fed” and that the animals were not grain-finished. The meat, however, may still contain antibiotics and hormones.

Organic

“Organic” is a popular food label and is used across all food groups. There are actually four terms for organic food products.

  • 100% Organic: This label is allowed on any product that contains 100% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Look for the USDA organic seal or “100% Organic” claim on the main display panel of the product.
  • Organic: The term “organic” may be used on any product that contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. Up to 5% of the ingredients may be non-organic and the label may include the USDA organic seal or “organic” claim.
  • Made with Organic: Foods that contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients may use the term, “Made with organic ____.” The label may be used on the primary display panel of the product but may not include the USDA organic seal.
  • Organic ingredients: Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organic ingredients on the information panel but cannot use the word “organic” anywhere on the packaging.

Related: 5 highly nutritious yet underrated foods to add to your diet

Natural or All-Natural

If you get confused by the label “Natural,” you’re not alone. The FDA recently questioned consumers regarding their opinion and understanding of the label “Natural,” but a final decision on the term’s meaning has not been determined.

However, the FDA temporarily defines “Natural” as having nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives) added to the food. The label is not intended to address pesticides, food manufacturing techniques or the nutritional value of the food.

Non-GMO

GMO’s, or genetically modified or engineered organisms, are monitored by the FDA. GMO’s are created through changing the genetic makeup of a plant, animal or other organism in a laboratory rather than through traditional methods.

Most genetically modified crops available today have been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticide or be able to survive herbicides that would normally kill them. Manufacturers must be truthful and not mislead when using a non-GMO label. Other terms deemed acceptable by the FDA include:

  • Not bioengineered
  • Not genetically engineered
  • Not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology
  • We do not use ingredients that were produced using modern biotechnology
  • Not genetically modified

Unfortunately, a non-GMO claim is not reliable because there are no clear rules for using the claim nor a consistent way of verifying it. However, The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that has developed a verification system backed by frequent testing of ingredients that could be genetically modified for consumers who wish to avoid them. For a product to display the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal, the food must contain no or minimal (less than 0.9 percent) genetically modified or engineered organisms. Manufacturers must work with independent certification companies who verify that the product meets the Non-GMO Project’s standards.

Good Source or Excellent Source

You may also see the terms “Good Source” or “Excellent Source” on many food labels today. This label indicates the product is high in a certain nutrient. If a food contains 10-19% of the daily value of a specific nutrient, it may use the term “Good Source.”

An “Excellent Source” label may be used if a food has at least 20% of the daily value of a specific nutrient. The terms “High in” or “Rich in” may also be used. A nutrient that does not carry a recommended daily intake of a nutrient, such as omega-3 fats, cannot carry these claims.

Other common food labels

  • Pasture-raised: The term “Pasture-raised” is not regulated and the USDA does not have a labeling policy for these products.
  • Multigrain: This may sound healthy but “Multigrain” only means the product contains more than one kind of grain. The product may still include mostly refined grains unless it specifically states “Whole grain.”
  • No added sugar: “No added sugar” does not mean the product is low in sugar since many foods, such as juice, are naturally high in sugar. Keep in mind that sugar substitutes may also have been added to these products.
  • Low-calorie: A “Low-calorie” label just means the product contains 1/3 fewer calories than the original, but it may still be higher than other brands. 
  • Fruit-flavored: The term “Fruit-flavored” may be used to convey that a product has a natural flavor. For example, a blueberry fruit-flavored yogurt may not contain any fruit at all, just chemicals designed to make it taste like blueberries.

A good resource for understanding food labeling and claims is the FDA website. A registered and licensed dietitian would also be able to help you identify healthy and nutritious food products to include as part of a balanced diet.

Questions about food choices? Find a dietitian near you today.

About the author

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Lisa Marsh, MS, RD, LD, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian with the Baylor Scott & White HealthTexas Provider Network. She provides nutrition assessment and dietary counseling for the Personal Edge Executive Wellness Program and Signature Medicine. Lisa's professional interests include nutrition counseling and consultation for the treatment of diseases and conditions related to an individual's diet and eating behaviors. Lisa's methods are geared toward lifestyle and behavioral changes unique to each individual.

Food labels 101: What Organic, All-Natural, Non-GMO and Grass-Fed really mean