Understanding Food Labels

Aisles of Food in Grocery Store --- Image by © Randy Faris/Corbis

Understanding food labels can be a daunting task, some terms are just marketing hype, while others are terms that are sanctioned by the USDA or FDA.

Food labels are managed in tandem by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. While the USDA handles meats, animal products, grains and produce, the FDA takes care of grocery items and many of the labels related to nutrition characteristics, like fat content, calories and vitamins.


What does the term “natural” mean on a food label?

In a short answer nothing. The term natural has no FDA guideline behind it. The information copied directly from their site states the following: The FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. (1) So while the foods can’t include synthetic ingredients, they can be heavily processed, such as animals raised with antibiotics and growth hormones. High fructose syrup (sometimes referred to as corn sugar) is a natural substance, but producing it from raw corn requires a number of processing steps.


What does the term “fresh” mean on food labels?

According to the fda.gov site, it means different things for different foods. So before you think fresh means something good, think again. According to Subpart F, Section 101.95 C food manufacturers are not precluded from using the term fresh on their products even if they are using “approved” waxes or coatings, post harvest approved pesticides, applying mild chlorine or mild acid wash, or ionizing radiation. (2)


What does the term “organic” mean on a food label?

According to the USDA there are 3 categories for the term organic:

100% organic- Foods that don’t contain any non-organic ingredients can be labeled as “100% organic”.

Organic-Foods can be labeled simply “organic” if they contain 95% organic ingredients, and the other 5% do not contain growth hormones.

Made with organic ingredients – Foods that have at least 70% organically produced ingredients can use the term “made with organic ingredients”. That’s right – up to 30% of the contents could be non-organic.

Click on link #3, to read the USDA’s official language on the department’s website. A great document to read, as there are additional details and loopholes, such as: small farms that generate less than $5,000 annually from their organic offerings are exempt from certification requirements. They can use the term “organic” on their labels, but can’t also add the USDA logo.
So for absolute certainty about your food, look for the categories named above AND look for the USDA official logo on the labeling as well.

What does the term “Made With” mean on a food label? If you see this term on packages, it’s safe to assume that there is some misdirection going on with the labeling. If a label says 100% real fruit juice, then its 100% percent juice, but if it says made with 100% fruit juice, check the label to see else may be included.

What does the term “Good “Source Of / “Contains”/ “Provides” mean on a food label?
When foods claim to be a good source of a particular vitamin or nutrient, they must prove that they have at least 10 percent of the USDA’s recommended daily allowance. (4)

What does the term ‘High’ Source Of / “Rich In” / “Excellent “Source Of” mean on a food label?
When foods claim to be a high source of a particular vitamin or nutrient, they must prove that they have at least 20 percent of the USDA’s recommended daily allowance. (Ibid)


Other Food Terms

Low Fat
Low fat is an FDA-regulated term that requires food bearing its label to have three or fewer grams of fat per serving.


A “light” label is regulated by the FDA and can refer to fat, calories or sodium. If referring to fat, the “light” food must have at least 50 percent less fat than the original version of the product.
If the food began with fewer than 50 percent of its calories derived from fat, the “light” label can refer to a reduction of a third or more calories, or a 50 percent or greater reduction in sodium.


Cholesterol Free
To be labeled “Cholesterol free” ,foods must have fewer than two milligrams of cholesterol per serving as well as fewer than two grams of saturated fat per serving.


Many people mistakenly assume that multigrain means that whole grains were used in the product. This term simply means that more than one type of grain was used to make the product.


The USDA requires meat that is labeled as “lean” to have fewer than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams.
Of note, this regulation is grandfathered in, which means that meat that has consistently been labeled lean since before 1991 can retain the label even if it doesn’t meet the requirements.


Free Range
For poultry, the term “free range” is enforced by the USDA and means that the animals were allowed access to the outside.
The USDA does not regulate the term “free range” for poultry or for beef.


Low Sodium
Low sodium foods must have 140 or fewer milligrams of sodium per serving — that’s about 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance, per the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.


Reduced Fat
‘Reduced fat’ refers to a food that has less than half the fat of its original version.


(1). http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm214868.htm

(2) http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?CFRPart=101&showFR=1&subpartNode=21:

(3) http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3003511



Additional Sources:

Rich Food, Poor Food by Jayson Calton, Ph.D and Mira Calton, CN

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