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Food Label Buzzwords: What you need to know to make an informed decision

Caitlin Suter, MS

Ever find yourself at the grocery store comparing products and deciding whether to go with the all-natural product vs the organic product? Maybe you’ve found yourself scratching your head as you stare and decide between the cage-free eggs and free-range eggs. If the answer is yes or you’ve done this with other foods and labels, you’re not alone! There’s a lot of buzz these days when it comes to labels like “all-natural ingredients”, “non-GMO”, “no artificial flavors”, “organic”, “gluten-free”, etc.

So, what’s all the buzz about?

A few common reasons for some of the buzz comes from the health aspect of food, the environmental impact of food production, and marketing opportunities. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Health

What’s not to like about the sound of natural food, having something organic, or consuming food grown close to home? But what do those health food terms really mean and how do they compare to one another? As our society becomes more health conscious, it’s not surprising to see the list of buzzwords continue to grow and become overwhelming or even confusing.

2. Environmental Impact

Choosing locally grown foods as well as foods lower on the food chain reduces the carbon footprint of food production and therefore increases the popularity of some of these terms.

3. Marketing

The more health conscious society becomes, the more the market for promoting health food terms continues to grow, and that’s where some confusion comes into play. Some terms are regulated by government agencies like the USDA and FDA, whereas others are just marketing strategies to increase sales.

Whether you’re buzzing for the reasons above or for other reasons, using the list below might just impact your choices on your next grocery trip.

Popular buzzwords

  • Natural – There is still no official definition of the term “natural” in regards to food labeling, however, the FDA has a longstanding policy and considers the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to a food item and that ingredients are “derived from natural sources”. This policy does not address questions such as food production methods, food processing and manufacturing methods, nor does it describe any nutrition or health benefits.
  • Artificial Ingredients that are not found in nature are synthetically produced. Some ingredients found in nature can be manufactured artificially. One example is vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which can be derived from an orange or synthetically produced in a lab.
  • Organic – Products grown on soil with no prohibited substances, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, three years prior to harvest. Meats require that animals are fed 100% organic feed, live in conditions that allow natural behaviors, and never administered antibiotics or hormones.
  • Made with organic – Packaged products that contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining 30% cannot be produced using prohibited practices, but can have substances not found in 100% organic products.  
  • GMO –The FDA considers “genetic engineering” to be the more precise term over genetically modified organisms. It’s a method used to introduce new traits or characteristics to an organism, such as resisting insect damage or nutritional profile. The FDA does regulate genetically engineered foods from both plants and animals, however they do not require labeling for foods from genetically engineered plants. The NonGMO-Project will help you find foods that do not contain GMO ingredients by looking for the non-GMO label on packages.
  • Free range/Free roaming – Hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, have access to fresh food and water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.
  • Cage-free – Hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water. However, the difference to free range is that there is no outside access, but it allows hens to exhibit natural behaviors in these indoor environments.
  • Locally grown – While there is no consensus on a definition regarding distance from production to consumption, the U.S. Congress in the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act adopted the definition of local food as a product that can be transported less than 400 miles from its origin or considered local if consumed within the state it was produced.
  • Gluten-free – Foods labeled as “gluten-free”, “no gluten”, “free of gluten”, or “without gluten” must contain less than 20 part per million (ppm) of gluten. Regulation also permits the “gluten-free” label for foods that do not contain an ingredient coming from any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreed grains, or only if those grains have been processed to remove gluten to a level of less than 20 ppm.

Some of these terms may seem straightforward and self-explanatory, but that’s not always the case! Whether you choose locally grown foods for reducing the carbon footprint of food production, gluten-free foods due to conditions like celiac disease, or free-range eggs for ethical reasons, understanding these terms can help you to make more informed decisions when food shopping.