Understanding Food Labels

Walking down the grocery aisles lately can be very confusing!   Consumers see various claims on the front of packaging, including:  “organic”, “cage-free”, “all natural” and “no added sugar”.

What does it all mean and who regulates it all?

The front of the package is designed to get your attention.  Manufacturers use different packaging techniques to get us to buy their products.  Health claims describe the relationship between a nutrient or a food and the risk of a disease. Products that make a health claim must contain a defined amount of the nutrient that is directly linked to the health-related condition.

What Label Language Means

Many claims are being made on packages these days.  Here are some descriptions to help you understand what you’re eating.

100% Organic:  all ingredients must be certified organic, and processing aids must be organic as well.  The name of certifying agent must be on the label, which may carry the USDA Organic seal.

Organic:  products must contain at least 95% certified organic ingredients.  The remaining 5% (except salt and water), along with any non-organic processing aids (such as chlorine to wash packaging equipment), must be from a national list of substances the USDA has approved for use in organics.  The product may carry the USDA Organic Seal.

Made With Organic:  packaging can’t include the USDA seal, but at least 70% of the product must be certified organic; non-agricultural ingredients must come from the national list.  The quality of organic foods is high even at 70%, experts say.

Organic Ingredients:  below 70% organic, the product can’t claim on its packaging that it’s organic, except to list specific certified organic ingredients on the information panel.  1 organic 2

Natural:  the USDA says that meat, poultry, and eggs labeled with this word must have no artificial ingredients and be minimally processed.  But the term isn’t defined beyond those items.  Assume “natural” means “conventional”.

Fair Trade:  non-government organizations certify that growers received minimum prices and community support from buyers and followed specific environmental practices.  Standards aren’t as strict as for organic.

Free-Range:  birds such as chickens are sheltered and have continuous access to the outdoors, along with unlimited access to food and water.  However, these claims are not certified.

Cage-Free: birds can freely roam inside a building or room with unlimited access to food and fresh water.  They are without cages but can still be packed very tightly, even when organic.

Grass-Fed: animals receive most of their nutrition from grass throughout their lives but may also eat hay or grain indoors during winter.  Animals may still receive antibiotics and hormones, according to the USDA.

Angus/Certified Angus Beef: the American Angus Association has registered a definition of “angus” beef with the USDA that requires the animal to have 50% angus genetics or a predominantly (51%) black coat or hide.  The animal must be under 30 months at slaughter and meet some additional meat quality requirements.  There are no requirements relating to how the animal is raised.

No Added Hormones: already true of organic, so it’s conventional producers that tend to use this term.  There is no certification for these claims.

Fairtrade: this term refers to better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.  By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than market price), fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade — which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers and enables workers to improve their position and have more control over their lives.

Additional Nutrient Claims

Good Source of… the food in question provides between 10-19% of the daily value of a particular nutrient.

High… the food in question provides 20% or more of the daily value of a particular nutrient. May also be read as “rich in” or “excellent source”.

Less… the food in question provides at least 25% less of a given nutrient or calorie than the regular version. Synonyms include “fewer” or “reduced”.

Light or Lite… when it comes to calories, this means that the food in question provides 1/3rd fewer calories than the regular version; when it comes to fat or sodium, this means it provides 50% or less than the regular version; and when it comes to texture or color (yeah, it gets REALLY tricky here!), it can also reference that quality – as long as it is clearly explained).

More… the food in question provides at least 10% or more of the daily value of a particular nutrient. This may also be read as “added” or “extra”.

Calorie free… the food in question has less than 5 calories per serving.

Low calorie… the food in question has less than 40 calories per serving.

Reduced calorie… the food in question has at least 25% fewer calories per serving than the regular version.

Fat-Free… the food in question has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. May be read as “no-fat” or “non-fat”

Low-Fat … the food in question has 3 grams of fat or less.

Low Saturated Fat… the food in question has less than 1 g of saturated per serving and 15% or less calories from fat.

Cholesterol Free… the food in question has less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.

High fiber… the food in question has 5 grams or more of fiber per serving.

Sugar free… the food in question has less than 0.5g of sugar per serving.

Sodium or Salt free… the food in question has less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Low sodium… the food in question has 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving.

Very low sodium… the food in question has 35 milligrams of sodium or less per serving.

 

Source:  Prevention Magazine (Sept. 2013), Edible Charlotte Magazine (Fall 2012), and Around The Plate.

 

 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

19 + twelve =