What Do All the Food Labels Mean?

Figuring out food can be tricky.

It should be simple, right? This is healthy, this is less healthy, stay away from this.

But nope. Marketers and multi-billion dollar companies have made it complex so we never can seem to catch up on all the new labels and what they mean. Not to mention, the rules seem to be changing daily and by the time I write this it’ll probably already be outdated.

However, here’s the breakdown that hopefully stays mostly accurate.

(Keep in mind, these are only U.S. labels. I’m not sure how many of these apply to other areas.)

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USDA organic

Anything labeled organic must have at least 95% organically produced ingredients. “They can not be produced with any antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.”

Organic is one of the more regulated labels compared to the others. On-site inspections and random inspections happen before and after being certified. There are no GMO’s allowed in the organic label.

There are varying tiers of organic:

  • 100% Organic – everything in it must be organic
  • Made with Organic Ingredients – must be made with at least 70% organic ingredients

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Natural Ingredients

This means nothing. It’s a word made up by marketers and the USDA doesn’t define it in any way. Watch out for this one.

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Cage Free / Free Range

This label means the animals cannot be contained in any way. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are treated well or that they have a lot of space to roam. It just means they’re not in a small cage. Yes, it does mean the animals are allowed access to the outdoors, but it’s a minimally regulated term. Applications and certifications are not required.

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Non GMO Project

This label means that the product doesn’t contain GMO’s. I’m not even going to go into the debate on GMO vs. Non-GMO in this article, but that’s what the label means. It is a regulated label, so at least you can know it’s almost always accurate. It takes between 3 and 6 months to become certified and it requires food testing and proof to meet their requirements.

If a product has a label such as “GMO free” or “Free of GMO’s” that doesn’t mean anything with this specific label. This label is currently the only non-GMO label that is verified.

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Grass Fed

Grass fed means the animal was fed grass for the lifetime of the animal. They have access to pasture during the growing season. The government has finally started putting more and more regulation into this label.

Under the grass fed label, there are pasture-grown, free-roaming, and meadow-raised which all mean the animal has access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days a year.

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Gluten Free

This label means it’s free of gluten (wheat, barley, rye, malt, brewer’s yeast, and non-gluten free oats). As someone who is celiac, this is a tricky label because they still allow the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten in the food which can still cause reactions in some people. According to celiac.org, “Manufacturers are not required to test for the presence of gluten in ingredients or in the finished “gluten-free” labeled food product. However, they are responsible for ensuring that the food product meets all labeling requirements. Manufacturers will need to determine how they will ensure this.”