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.
ALL-NATURAL / NATURAL / 100% NATURAL
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.
GRAIN FED / GRASS FED
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.
LIGHT / LITE
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.
NO ADDED SUGAR
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.
NO ARTIFICIAL COLORS, FLAVORS OR PRESERVATIVES
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.
NO TRANS FAT / TRANS FAT FREE
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.
PASTURE-RAISED / PASTURED
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?” About.com, 3/27/09
“What Is ‘Natural’ Food?” Slashfood, 2/23/09