Whether you’re following a gluten-free diet or just want to be an educated, health-conscious shopper, it’s important to know how to read food labels. Food label literacy is much more complicated than meets the eye, however.
Walk through the aisles of any grocery store in any place in the world and you’ll be bombarded with products telling you they’re “natural” or “organic.” Do you know what these terms mean? What about “cage free” vs. “free range?” Is there a difference?
With so many marketing claims plastered on products from every aisle in the grocery store these days, I thought it was time to dedicate a post to upping your skills on how to read a food label like a nutrition pro.
How to Read Food Labels: Decoding Claims
These are common claims on food labels today – this list will help you decipher what each claim really means:
Antibiotic Free: This means the animal was not given antibiotics during its lifetime. “No antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics” mean the same thing.
Cage-Free: This term is used on labeling of poultry and egg products, but also might be used in processed foods containing poultry or egg products. Cage-free means the animal wasn’t caged, but it doesn’t necessarily mean cruelty-free, antibiotic-free, or that the animal had access to the outdoors. It also doesn’t mean the animal wasn’t raised in crowded conditions.
Fair Trade: This means farmers and laborers in developing countries received a fair wage and good working conditions while growing and/or packaging the product.
Free Range: The FDA permits only the egg and poultry industry to use this term. Like cage free, the animals are not caged; however, free range goes a step further and indicates the animals were given outdoor time. The amount of time is unknown and varied. This term doesn’t mean cruelty-free or antibiotic-free.
Gluten-Free: If you have celiac disease, learning how to read food labels is crucial to your health! Companies can use the term “gluten free” on their products if the product contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten as set forth by the FDA’s gluten free for food labeling standards. The FDA’s gluten free ruling also states “Foods may be labeled “gluten-free” if they are inherently gluten free; or do not contain an ingredient that is: 1) a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat); 2) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or 3) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 ppm or more gluten in the food.”
GMO-Free, Non-GMO or No GMOs: GMO stands for genetically modified organisms and describes plants or animals that have DNA that has been genetically engineered. Many crops, for example, are genetically modified to be resistant to Roundup, allowing farmers to douse chemicals on everything to kill the bugs but not the crops.
Grain-Fed: This term describes animals fed a grain diet free from animal products or byproducts. Labels that say, “100% vegetarian fed” go a step further in ensuring no animal byproducts were used in the animal’s feed.
Grass-Fed: Animals naturally eat grass (until factory farming took over) so grass-fed describes an animal raised on grass vs. grains or animal byproducts. Grass-fed meat is leaner than grain-fed meat. Grass-fed animals are free from synthetic hormones and unnecessary antibiotics. Some grass-fed animals are grain-finished, which means they ate grain just prior to slaughter.
Healthy: This term is regulated to describe products low in saturated fat and limited in the amount of cholesterol and sodium. The product bearing this label must also contain at least 10% of Vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber.
Heritage: This means a rare or endangered breed of livestock or crop raised before industrial agriculture. Most heritage farms use sustainable practices with the goal of saving animals from extinction and preserving genetic diversity.
Hormone-Free: The USDA prohibits the use of “hormone-free,” but animals raised without added growth hormones can be labeled as “no hormones administered” or “no added hormones.” Hogs and poultries cannot be given hormones at any time.
Natural: There are no laws regulating the term “natural” except when used on meat and poultry products. If used on animal products, it means minimal processing and no artificial flavors, artificial colors, or preservatives were used. Remember, foods labeled “natural” does not mean they are sustainable, organic, cruelty-free, free from hormones or antibiotic-free. When “natural” is used to describe a processed food, it has no regulation behind it and bears no weight, in my opinion.
Non-Irradiated: This means the food has not been exposed to radiation, which is used on meat and vegetables to kill bacteria and reduce incidence of foodborne illnesses.
Pasture-Raised: This indicates that the animal was raised on a pasture and allowed to eat grass (its natural diet) without being fed grain on a feedlot. Pasture-raised animals are humanely treated and able to move about freely and exhibit natural behaviors throughout their lifetimes. This is a similar term to “grass-fed” except it goes a step further and more clearly indicates the animal was raised outdoors on a pasture.
rBGH-Free or rBST-Free: Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotrophin (rBST) are genetically engineered hormones injected in dairy cows to increase milk production. These hormones are banned in the European Union, Canada and other countries (but available in the good ole’ USA!). If milk is labeled rBGH-free, for example, it is produced from dairy cows that never received hormone injections. Organic milk, by default, is rBGH-free.
Organic: Organic farmers must meet certain guidelines set forth by the USDA and verified by a third-party agency. Organic producers do not use prohibited materials such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, etc. for three years prior to organic certification and then continually thereafter. Organic products do not use GMOs and irradiation, conduct positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices, provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock, refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals, sustain animals on 100% organic feed, avoid contamination during processing of organic products, and prohibit use of hydrogenation and trans fats.
USDA Organic Seal: If a product contains this seal, it contains 95-100% organic ingredients. Products can use the label “organic ingredients” on the front of the package if 70-95% of the ingredients are organic, and they can use that same term on the side panel if less than 70% of ingredients are organic.
The next time you’re at the grocery store, refer to this list so you know how to read food labels and decode what they really mean. Good luck!