Organic, Gluten-Free, Low-Glycemic, and More -- What Confusing Food Labels Really Mean

There are so many food labels out there. What do they all mean, really? And which ones are "official" and which are just marketing? 


We asked Sharon Palmer, RD, the Plant-Powered Dietitian and author of Plant-Powered for Life, for the full scoop on some of the most common of these labels, what's just hype, and what's useful information.

All-Natural: This could mean any number of things because the FDA doesn't have an official definition for it. However, Palmer says, "it doesn't object if food companies use this term on labels when they don’t contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetics substances." She recommends exercising caution when you see it. "Do your own investigation and read the label to make sure that it doesn’t contain ingredients you don’t want to find."

Cage-Free/Free-Range: We see these terms on egg cartons. But what's the difference? Neither are USDA-mandated labels. They imply that the hens are free to walk, nest, and do other chicken things. The difference is in where they get to do this. "Free-range means they have access to outdoors; cage-free means they do not have access to outdoors," Palmer says.

Gluten-Free: Good news! The FDA now has an official rule defining gluten-free for food labeling. Palmer says it means that "the product must contain a uniform threshold of gluten considered safe for celiac patients." She says consumers should be able to trust gluten-free labeling on foods. 

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GMO-Free: By now you've probably heard about genetically modified foods. Well, companies that sell or manufacture foods with GMO ingredients aren't required to label them as such. If you want to avoid GMOs, Palmer says, "the Non-GMO Project has a certification program in which products that have this label are certified that they do not contain GMO ingredients." She says consumers can trust this label. Another indicator, she adds, is the USDA organic label, which is not allowed for foods with GMO ingredients. 

Grass-Fed: You'll see this label sometimes on meat and dairy products. "This USDA label requires 'grass-fed' animals be fed only grass and foods they've foraged with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning," Palmer says. "They must have continuous access to pasture during growing season. This is a valuable label for those concerned with the welfare of the animals as well as the nutritional quality of their meat and dairy." Grass-fed foods tend to be higher in Omega-3 fats, among other nutrients, than conventional foods.

Local: This has become a very trendy food label, but how local is local, really? Surprise! Sometimes it could mean the food was grown 500 miles away. "There is no standard definition for local, so it may be according to a particular organization, for example a supermarket," Palmer says. You may have noticed stores like Whole Foods marketing foods grown within a certain number of miles. Some farmers' markets have similar requirements. So ask questions about your food if going local is important to you. "It’s up to you to determine what the definition of local is for the product you’re considering," Palmer says.

Low Glycemic: This is another voluntary label that has no official meaning. Palmer says some food companies have an analysis done on their products to measure how its carbohydrates will affect blood glucose levels. "Most companies go to extremes to avoid listing incorrect information on labeling," she says. "So, you can probably feel pretty safe with these levels, but it’s not certified."

Multigrain: This means it has a bunch of different whole grains, right? Nope. "This just means that the product has more than one grain," Palmer says. "It doesn’t mean that its has a certain amount of each grain, or that it is whole grain. Use caution with this claim."

More from The Stir: 5 Ways to Tell If Your Whole Grain Bread Is Real

Organic: "This program is mandated through the USDA and is highly regulated with a very detailed set of guidelines that companies must comply with in order to use this label on products," Palmer says. This includes approved organic pesticides and fertilizers. "You can trust the USDA Organic label when you see it."

No Added Sugar: Surprise! This labels means what it says. It cannot contain added sugars, at least not the ones the FDA recognizes. Palmer says these include "cane syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, dextrose, and sucrose," among others.

Pasture-Raised: Like "cage free" this is not a USDA-defined label. However, Palmer says it means that "the animal is uncaged, free to walk, and have outdoor access." 

Sustainable: This word, and its cousin "artisan," have become practically meaningless, they're used so indiscriminately. It's supposed to mean that the food is grown or produced in a way that has minimal impact on the environment. "There is no standard definition for this term, and you should be careful that you're not falling prey to marketing hype," Palmer cautions. "Check out the food company to see what they base this claim on."

Vegan: Believe it or not, there is no federal certification for this label. "It is a voluntary program in which the food manufacturer specifies that there are no non-vegan ingredients in the product," Palmer says. However, even if it's not certified, she thinks it's generally a trustworthy label "since manufacturers do not want to pose any issues by misbranding their items." She adds that you can verify this simply by reading the ingredients list. 

Wild-Caught: You'll see this label on some fish. "This means that the seafood came from seas, rivers, and other natural bodies of water," Palmer says. This is different from fish raised at a commercial fishery.


What labels do you look for when you're food shopping?

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