Boost Your Food Label Knowledge To Eat Smarter
Most people know food labeling extremes: refined sugar and processed foods (BAD) and whole grains and leafy vegetables (GOOD). We also know to seek foods labeled “organic,” “cage free,” and “hormone free.” But what precisely do these words mean and who decides how they can be used?
In the United States, the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling at the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) governs food labeling. Here are some of their labeling rules for common words:
- Organic foods must be grown or raised without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetic modification, and radiation. If a food label says “made with organic ingredients,” 70% or more of its weight excluding water and salt must be organic. If the label says, “organic,” 95% of the weight must be organic. Only if the ingredients are exclusively organic can the term “100% organic” be used.
- Natural. This term describes how a food was prepared rather than how the animal or plant was raised. The food producers must define the term’s use on their labels.
- Whole grain. Whole grains must be unprocessed and contain all three parts of the plant seeds (bran, germ, and endosperm). If the food label does not say 100% whole grain, however, the food is likely not and in fact its whole grain percentage may quite be small. A good strategy is to examine where whole grains and flour appear in the ingredients list.
- Cage free. Cage free birds must be allowed to roam an open area but they are not necessarily allowed to go outside (unlike free range birds, which are).
- Hormone free. In the US, hormones are not allowed in poultry or pigs so claiming these products are “hormone free” is marketing speak. Beef and lamb can be labeled hormone free if the producer can demonstrate that steroids were not used.
- Free and low. To be labeled “free,” a serving of food must contain less than 0.5 grams of that ingredient. To be labeled “low,” the serving must contain less than 3 grams of the ingredient. “Gluten-free” products must have been processed to remove gluten down to less than 20 parts per million.