Wednesday, May 20, 2009

26 Common Food Labels, Explained

These days, grocery shopping involves a lot of reading. Food is rarely content to just be, and instead, must include dozens of labels designating it as CAGE-FREE, HIGH IN ANTIOXIDANTS, or the dreaded ORGANIC. And even if you know your PASTURED from your HUMANELY-RAISED chickens, odds are you still need a PhD to decode most of the other language.

So, to make navigating your supermarket a tad easier, here are 26 food labels, defined and explained in terms understandable to humans. I have to be honest - 36 hours ago, I couldn't tell the difference between LOW-FAT, LITE and REDUCED-FAT. Now, I can. And I have this guide to consult when I forget.

Readers, if I made a mistake (or several hundred) lemme know and I will correct it.

What it means:
In regards to beef and poultry, NATURAL means the meat appears relatively close to its natural state, and often won’t have additives or preservatives. (Note: there’s no USDA regulation for this, however.) In regards to other foods, NATURAL and ALL-NATURAL mean nothing. Absolutely nothing.
What it really means: With the exception of meat, slapping NATURAL on a label is a marketing ploy. Everything essentially derives from nature, so there’s a ton of fudging that can be done. Don’t trust it, and read the ingredient breakdown before you buy any product.

What it means:
I’m leaving this one up to Woman’s Day: “For a food to be labeled as containing antioxidants, the FDA requires that the nutrients have an established Recommended Daily Intakes (RDI) as well as scientifically recognized antioxidant activity.” What? I’m not sure. But it doesn’t matter, because …
What it really means: Actually, Woman's Day has this one covered, too: “Most products already contain antioxidants and manufacturers are simply beginning to call it out due to current food and health trends.”

What it means:
Egg-laying hens don’t live in cages.
What it really means: Very little. The poultry can walk around, but they can also be fed, raised, and slaughtered like any other chicken. There’s no official regulation for this term, as far as I can tell.

What it means:
Congratulations! The USDA has acknowledged that your meat is actually meat.
What it really means: The USDA gave your meat a grade and a class, and certified that it hasn’t been replaced with Folger’s crystals.

ENRICHED / FORTIFIED (Added, Extra, Plus)
What it means: A nutrient (niacin, Vitamin C, etc.) has been added to your food. Now, compared to a standard, non-fortified food, it has at least 10% more of the Daily Value of that nutrient.
What it really means: It varies. A manufacturer can add a ton of Vitamin C to orange juice, and set you up for life. Or the same guy can slip a measly 10% thiamin into a piece of bread, and it barely makes a dent. Read the label to see you’re getting the amount you want.

FREE (Without, No, Zero, Skim)
What it means:
FREE has hard and fast definitions set forth by the FDA. They are:
Calorie free: Less than 5 calories per serving.
Cholesterol free: Less than 2 mg cholesterol and 2 g or less saturated fat per serving.
Fat free: Less than 0.5 g of fat per serving.
Sodium/salt free: Less than 5 mg per serving.
Sugar free: Less than 0.5 g of sugars per serving. (See SUGAR-FREE entry as well.)

What it really means: You can be pretty confident that FREE foods lack what they say they do. But be careful. Often, fat-free and calorie-free products are some of the most chemical-laden items in the supermarket (not to mention awful for most cooking purposes).

What it means:
A term usually applied to chickens, FREE-RANGE means birds have access to an outside area. That’s it.
What it really means: This is a huge part of Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Essentially, FREE-RANGE often means birds are raised on a massive factory farm, and given a tiny patch of lawn that they rarely, if ever, use. The FREE-RANGE label means virtually nothing, for eggs or roasters. Don’t buy it.

What it means:
Pretty much, FRESH food is raw food that’s never been frozen or warmed, and doesn’t have any preservatives.
What it really means: Hey! This is an actual thing! Who knew? A food labeled FRESH is regulated by the FDA, so you’re getting what you’re paying for. Nice.

What it means: Grain is the primary diet of most cattle. It’s meant to produce fatter animals who grow and can be slaughtered much faster than nature allows. GRASS FED cows (while I’m not sure there’s an official designation) are generally raised entirely on pasture grass, and can’t be fed grain.
What it really means: While I’m led to believe GRASS FED cows taste better on a bun, I’m actually a little hazy on this one. Can anyone clarify? Is there a federal regulation for this term?

GUILT-FREE (Wholesome, Traditional)
What it means: Absolutely nothing.
What it really means: It’s a made-up word to make you want to buy a product. Ignore it entirely, and don’t forget to read nutrition breakdowns on the packaging. Boo.

What it means: Simply, “A HEALTHY food must be low in fat and saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. In addition, if it's a single-item food, it must provide at least 10 percent of one or more of vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.” Exemptions (and there are many) can be found here.
What it really means: Wow. As in the case with FRESH, I didn’t know this was an actual thing. I assumed it was a spurious claim made by food companies. But it’s actually very real, and leaves little open to interpretation. Nice work, FDA!

HIGH IN / GOOD SOURCE (Excellent for)
What it means: Something labeled GOOD SOURCE “means a single serving contains 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value for a nutrient.” In regards to fiber, the food must have between 2.5 and 4.9 grams of it in every portion, but also has to be low in fat. A food labeled HIGH IN has at least 20% of the Daily Value of a nutrient.
What it really means: It is what it is. There’s little ambiguity here.

What it means: Nothing. The USDA says it can’t be proved.
What it really means: Pigs and chickens aren’t supposed to have hormones anyway, so be on the lookout there. For beef, it’s not possible to show hormones weren’t used, so the designation comes entirely from the manufacturer. You’re taking their word for it.

What it means: In regard to the chicken for which it’s meant, almost nothing. It’s not a federally regulated definition.
What it really means: While there’s some effort by smaller groups to get standards together, it’s not completely there yet. In the meantime, look for the Certified Humane label, which means the birds “were allowed to engage in natural behaviors,” had room to move around, had fresh water and a no-hormone/antibiotic diet, and were handled with care during their lives.

What it means: In terms of beef, poultry, and fish, LEAN means the product has less than 10 grams of fat, fewer than 4 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. EXTRA LEAN meats go even further than that.
What it really means: I did a lot of research on this a few months ago, and while serving sizes vary, a LEAN label is good news for dieters. Look for it, but be careful to check the sodium content while you’re at it.

What it means: There are two definitions: A) the food has 50% less fat than its regular equivalent, or B) the food has 33% less calories than its regular equivalent.
What it really means: The product may be a better choice than its full-fat or full-calorie version, but it’s not necessarily healthy. For example, Hellmann’s Light Mayonnaise has 4.5 grams of fat, which is 5.5 grams less than their plain ol’ mayo. But that’s per tablespoon, which, in the grand scheme of things, is still quite a lot of fat.

LOW (Little, Few, Contains a Small Amount of, Low Source of)
What it means: There are exact specifications for this label put forth by the FDA. The most common are:
Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.
Low-cholesterol: 20 mg or less and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving
Low-fat: 3 g or less per serving
Low-saturated fat: 1 g or less per serving
Low-sodium: 140 mg or less per serving

What it really means: Thanks to strict standards, the LOW is pretty cut-and-dry. Expect food products to adhere to these guidelines, but don’t expect something that’s LOW in fat to also be LOW in calories.

What it means: Manufacturers haven’t put any additional sugar into their product.
What it really means: There still may be artificial sweeteners or naturally-occurring sugars within the food. Certain fruits and dairy products don’t need extra sweetness because they’re born with it already.

What it means: Your food is made entirely from natural ingredients
What it really means: Well, it depends on your definition of “natural.” Is high fructose corn syrup natural? What about ammonium sulfate? If a product is enriched with more niacin, does that count? While this label points towards good things, a quick scan of the ingredient list will tell you everything you need to know.

What it means: The food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
What it really means: While this is a relatively new label addition (and a good one since trans fat is very, very, very bad), it’s not quite an indicator of health. A food with NO TRANS FAT may still be high in both saturated and regular fat.

ORGANIC (100% Organic, Made with organic ingredients)
What it means: There are entire books written on the topic, but it boils down to this: 100% ORGANIC products consist entirely of organic ingredients. An item labeled ORGANIC has 95% organic ingredients. Something that’s MADE WITH ORGANIC INGREDIENTS means 70% must come from organic ingredients. Chickens and cows are different and much, much rarer.
What it really means: Hoo boy. Here we go. The word “organic” is thrown around with some regularity, but the USDA’s never certified that it’s any healthier than ol’ supermarket food. (For what it’s worth. The USDA isn’t exactly the Vatican.) The label doesn’t guarantee any humane treatment of animals, and regulation for fruits and vegetables vary. However, it seems like a general consensus that organic food tastes better, and may be better for you. Proceed with caution.

What it means: This is a term used to describe chickens. As the USDA puts it, "Birds are raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on grass and fed an organic diet (without hormones or non-organic additives) and/or raised without antibiotics (drugs that are intended to prevent or treat animal illnesses).”
What it really means: Chickens and hens can eat what they’re supposed to naturally (as opposed to feed), and are given lots of space to move around. Their eggs tend to be healthier and more flavorful.

PERCENT FREE (ex: 97% Fat-Free)
What it means: Let’s let the FDA take this one, since they have the simplest explanation: “A product bearing this claim must be a low-fat or a fat-free product. In addition, the claim must accurately reflect the amount of fat present in 100 g of the food. Thus, if a food contains 2.5 g fat per 50 g, the claim must be ‘95 percent fat free.’”
What it really means: In general, this is a good thing, since the percentage label can only be placed on leaner foods.

REDUCED (Fewer, Less)
What it means:
A food item has at least 25% less calories, fat, or a nutrient as compared to the reference food. For instance, if regular potato chips have 12 grams of fat per serving, reduced-fat potato chips can’t have more than 9 grams for the same size portion.
What it really means: This is a pretty cut-and-dry definition, but can be easily confused with the LIGHT/LITE label. Reduced foods are generally healthier than their unreduced counterparts, but are not necessarily LOW in fat, calories, or anything else. Read the nutrition facts to make sure you want what you’re buying.

SUGAR-FREE (also: Without Sugar, Zero Sugar, No Sugar, etc.)
What it means: There is no, or an immeasurably small, amount of sugar in the food (less than 0.5 g per serving).
What it really means: There is no, or an immeasurably small, amount of sugar in the food. However, there could be a sugar alcohol like sorbitol, and sugar-free doesn’t necessarily mean carbohydrate-free. Diabetics, take note.

What it means: There is some amount of whole wheat in the food you are buying.
What it really means: A range of things, many of which can’t be derived from reading the words WHOLE WHEAT splashed across a logo. To ensure you’re buying a healthy product, look for something with 100% Whole Wheat, and make sure whole wheat flour is the first ingredient, and no other flours are present.

And that’s a wrap. Readers, there is a distinct possibility I’m off my rocker with some of these. Please discuss/point out errors in the comment section.

P.S. Here are my sources.

“‘All natural’ claim on food labels is often deceptive; foods harbor hidden MSG and other unnatural ingredients,” Natural News, 3/21/05
Breaking news: USDA limits “grass fed” label to meat that actually is,” Ethicurean, 10/16/07
Coping with Diabetes,” FDA, 9/95
Deciphering Food Labels,” Kids’ Health
Egg Labels: Reading Between the Lines,” Egg Industry
FDA: Scale Back 'Whole Grain' Labels,” Web MD, 2/15/06
Food Additives,” Healthy Eating Advisor
The Food Label,” FDA, 7/03
Food Label News
Food Label Terms Defined,” How Stuff Works
Food Labeling; Nutrient Content Claims; Definition for ‘High Potency’ and Definition for ‘Antioxidant’ for Use in Nutrient Content Claims for Dietary Supplements and Conventional Foods,” FDA, 7/18/08
Free-Range and Organic Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products: Conning Consumers?” Peta Media Center
Hormone-Free,” Consumer Reports Greener Choices
Label Able: Certified Humane,” YumSugar, 4/3/07
A Little 'Lite' Reading,” FDA
Organic and Free Range Chicken – Better For My Health?” Healthcastle
Reading Between the Food Label Lines,” Womans Day, 5/12/09
Reading Food Labels,” Diabetes Files
Reading food labels: Tips if you have diabetes,” Mayo Clinic, 5/18/07
Some 'light' reading on food labels,” LA Times, 10/2/07
Trans fats now listed on food labels,” American Heart Organization,
The Truth about Food Labels,” Quality Health
Understanding the Food Label,” Colorado State University
What is a Cage-Free Egg?”, 3/27/09
What Is ‘Natural’ Food?” Slashfood, 2/23/09

(Photos courtesy of Scientific Psychic, Eurogrocer, Flickr member I Love Butter, and Raley's.)

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Morta Di Fame said...

Thanks so much for this. Its really comprehensive and you take care to distinguish what is true and regulated or just a marketing ploy. Why are they allowed to lie to us about what we eat? I have heard about the "cage-free" myth. In the movie "Our Daily Bread" you can see these giant "cage-free" indoor chicken footballs fields packed end to end with chickens. Then they actually vacuum them into cages that are like drawers with other chickens in them. They are supposedly worse off when they are cage-free because they are so clumped together that they fight and brutally injure each other.
As far as grass vs. grain fed. I think grain fed tasted better because as you said its fattier, but grass fed is healthier both to you and the animal because they are eating real food, not processed feed and since they are healthier they are not as tasty, but still tasty. Thanks for the "pastured" chicken info. Thats really helpful, too. I am going to link to this from my blog because its a really fantastic resource. Cheers!

Jin6655321 said...

Thank you so much for this valuable resource! Definitely going to bookmark and reference regularly!

Stacy said...

Virtually all cows are grass fed at some point in their lives. They live on big ranches, and then a few months before slaughter, they are rounded up and put into pens and fed grain to fatten them up in a short period of time. (This is a CFO - Confinement Feeding Operation.) Because high concentrations of grain (an unnatural diet) and being cramped in close quarters with too many other cows, they are more susceptible to illness, so some are given routine antibiotics (unless they are organic, of course).

But a grass finished cow is one that did not end up on a CFO. This is what most people mean when they say "grass fed" (but I believe the term is still unregulated, so beware of people trying to be tricky, like with "cage fee".) Grass finished cows ate grass their entire life. It is their natural diet, and they can't be overcrowded, so the cow is naturally happier and healthier. It makes the meat healthier too. It is leaner than grain fed. And the kind of fat is better for you too. It has a better ratio of omega 3 to omego 6, and an important fatty acid called CLA that helps protect against cancer.

Because of the difference in fat content, you should cook grass fed meats at a lower temperature. Some people might add a little butter to the pan. They don't have the characteristic marbling that is found with grain fed, but that isn't natural, so I don't want it anyawy! I personally find the flavor of grass fed beef to be much preferable.

Megan said...

Thank you for a detailed and informative post (not without its humor, too. Bonus!).

A note (or two): The other thing to be aware of when encountering "sugar-free" is that it often means that sugar substitutes are being used in place of sugar. Things like splenda, aspertame, etc. Many people are starting to report intolerances to sugar substitues, one of the main symptoms being horrible headaches. Caveat emptor.

Another thing to just put out there, to have on the radar, is that food items that have no sugar (glucose, fructose, sucrose) but are sweet (sweetened with sugar substitutes) may have a negative effect on us. In short, sweetness without calories confuses the heck out of our bodies. (I have an unverified theory that the reason you find so many people "addicted" to Diet Coke is because they aren't getting the caloric satisfaction from their sweet drink, so they drink more and more and more of it.)

Now, I heard this from a friend (who's a nutritionalist) who mentioned something about studies that show this to be true, but I have yet to verify these claims myself. I just thought it was interesting.

Oh, and the other thing about "grass-fed" cattle (which you probably know since it seems you have also read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan) is that grass-fed cattle are healthier creatures, which means that those who eat them are healthier, since the meat we consume tends to be only a few short preparation steps from the living, breathing cow. As far as federal regulations on the term, I don't know, but I hope they're in the works.

3rd Wave Inc said...

Buying quality organic products is the initial move to a healthy, natural, green lifestyle that can bring a good feeling not only to ourselves but as to our environment as well.

limecloud said...

Thank you for your post, this brings up a lot of issues about regulation and how “marketing terms” can confuse shoppers (it’s crazy that they can make up terms like that and people have no way to verify). One thing I thought I’d mention is serving sizes- all of those “less than…” amount of fat or calories ect. are based off serving sizes. So if the serving size is small (which it probably is) you could be eating a lot more fat/calories than you think. It’s very deceiving. Thanks for shedding some light on this :)

The Meal Planner said...

Wow this is so incredibly thorough..amazing job! I will definitely bookmark this page and return to it whenever I have questions to be answered.

Another food term I just discovered is "Mult-Grain". Sounds healthy and amazing right?? All it refers to is that more than one grain is doesn't refer at all to the state of the grain, so it may be just as processed and bleached as white flour. But people will buy it thinking it is better for them than white flour products. So much sneaky marketing involved!

Erin said...

That truly is interesting (and dissappointing at the same time. I love my free range eggs!)

Veronica said...

Wow, I have been looking for information like that for a long time. My best friend always buys cage free and free range everything. I have always just stuck to buying local when I can, because at least that way I know where it is coming from. It confirms most of my suspicions that the label really means almost nothing.

Olivia said...

Seconding what Stacy said: grass-fed cows are like pastured chickens, eating a diet that is healthy for them as opposed to one that is convenient for us to feed them. Bettor food for them means better food for us, in that grass-fed beef has less fat and better fats (more omega-3s, which are the reason they keep telling us to eat more fish, less omega-6s, more CLA).

Incidentally, you get the same fat-ratio benefits from grass-fed dairy products. They're a bit hard to find, and of course it's more expensive to let the cows wander around eating grass than keeping them inside eating grain, but I find butter that's good for me to be worth those challenges.

So, grass-fed is another of those labels that can be deceptive, but worthwhile if you can actually find it.

Danielle said...

You can find grass finished beef (and dairy) along with locally, sustainably produced food of all kinds by typing in your zip code at and/or

Anonymous said...

Great breakdown, with one exception: California Certified Organic Farmers or USDA Organic labels actually do mean something fairly significant about the growing, processing, and handling of the product. For example tolerances for pesticide levels. Certification for these labels is not easy. I encourage you to read the USDA National Organic Standards linked here:

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JavaMama said...

This is very informative, thank you! I do think one thing worth noting is the use of "good source" though....while it is clear, I think the danger is in ignoring the rest of the label once you see something like "Good Source of vitamins and minerals" when it really could be packed full of preservatives and additives also! So it is still a misleading label in that sense!