Food Label Claims Exposed

I've never been more conscious about what I put into my body and find food labels not only to be confusing, but also misleading.  The more I learn in nutrition school, the more careful I become.  As a gluten-free, vegan (yes, my meat-loving, husband who lives for Sunday pasta wants to kill me), I've found plenty of nutritious meal options, but it's not always easy.  Whether you're like me or just like to buy "organic," I dissected some common food labels so you're really in the know and don't buy into the marketing fluff.



This may blow your mind.  No standards exist for the label "natural" except when used on meat and poultry products. Can you believe that?  I see the word "natural" slapped on everything from a box of crackers to jar of peanut butter.  The USDA guidelines state that “natural” meat and poultry products can only undergo minimal processing and cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, “natural” foods are not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics. 


What you really need to look for when buying organic is the "USDA Organic" seal.  The word itself is apparently meaningless.  If a product contains the seal, it means that 95 to 100% of its ingredients are organic, but products with 70 to 95% organic ingredients can still advertise “organic” on the front of the package and products with less than 70% organic ingredients can identify them on the side panel.


Animals raised on a grain diet are labeled “grain-fed.” On labels, look for claims like “100% vegetarian diet," which ensures the animals were given feed containing no animal by-products (which if you really want to know, are the remains of dead animals after the good meat was used up).


Grass-fed is better than grain-fed.  It simply means that the animals were fed grass rather than grains. Since it's more natural, grass-fed meat is more lean and lower in fat and calories than grain-fed meat. Grass-fed animals are not fed grain, animal by-products, synthetic hormones, or antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease – although they may have been given antibiotics to treat disease. 


Look for labels like “no hormones administered” or “no added hormones.” By law, hogs and poultry cannot be given any hormones, but the rest of the meat you eat can be full of injections. 


“Antibiotic-free” means that an animal was not given antibiotics during its lifetime.  Woot woot!  You can also look for labels that say, “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics.”


This is super misleading and makes me so mad!  “Cage-free” means that the birds are raised without cages, however what you really need to know is whether the birds were raised outdoors on a pasture or if they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions (basically just like cages). If you are looking to buy eggs, poultry, or meat that was raised outdoors, look for a label that says “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”


The “fair trade” label relates to farmers and workers.  This means they have received a fair wage and worked in acceptable conditions while growing and packaging the product.  #ethics


The use of the terms “free-range” or “free- roaming” are only defined by the USDA for egg and poultry production. The label can be used as long as the producers allow the birds access to the outdoors so that they can engage in natural behaviors. It does not necessarily mean that the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic-free or that the animals spent the majority of their time outdoors. 


GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. #gross Products can be labeled “GMO-free” if they are produced without being genetically engineered through the use of GMOs.