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5 Common Food Labels And What They REALLY Mean

Trying to eat healthy in the US is both easy and hard. Grocers offer everything under the sun, and it’s your job to sift through the choices and decide what type of diet makes most sense for you. Learning how to read labels is a big part of learning how to shop.

But labels in grocery stores are confusing, too. Many ingredients have “secret” meanings, or are disguised as “less unhealthy” alternatives. There are also many buzzwords on the front of food packages meant to entice the buyer. So today, let’s take a look at some of the most common labels you’ll find in grocery stores, and break down what they really mean. 

Organic

Foods with an organic certification stamp on the label are grown in adherence to specific rules and regulations for organic food production. For organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, this means they were raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones. Organic plant foods are grown without the use of specific pesticides or synthetic ingredients, plus they are free of sewer sludge, bioengineering, or radiation. Organic producers must be inspected by a government-approved certifier. There are different levels of organic certification: 

  • 100% Organic: Products that are completely organic or made of completely organic ingredients
  • Organic: Products with 95% of their ingredients are organic quality for this label
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: Products that have at least 70% of organic ingredients (there is no UDSA seal for this qualification)

Gluten-Free

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. For some (those with Celiac specifically) gluten can damage the lining of the small intestine and cause serious health concerns.

According to the FDA, manufacturers can voluntarily choose to use the gluten-free label, and are responsible for ensuring they meet the requirements to use the label on their products. These are foods that, according to the FDA, must contain less than 20ppm of gluten and do not contain any wheat products (wheat, barley, rye, or crossbreeds of these grains).

Some manufacturers use the label from third party gluten-free certification programs on their foods. However, none of these orgs are endorsed or accredited by the FDA.

All-Natural food labels

The term “natural” in food products has grown in popularity as we make a shift towards looking for healthier alternatives for the meat and other animal products we consume. Unsurprisingly, this is currently an unregulated term.

According to the FDA, they “consider the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” There are two main caveats to this definition: the FDA has not participated in any rulemaking for this term, and this policy wasn’t intended to cover the way food is produced. That includes the use of pesticides in growing produce, pasteurization, or irradiation (when a product is exposed to radiation).

Keto

A Keto (aka the Ketogenic Diet) label has become extremely popular in the health food sections of grocery stores over the past several years. There is no FDA regulated qualification for Keto products; however, the Paleo Foundation created a Keto Certification in 2021.

Manufacturers do not need to utilize this certification to add the Keto label to products, making this label claim more of a marketing pull rather than a helpful resource. If something touts a Keto label, it is understood that this food is approved for the Keto diet, but actually most of the “Keto Approved” or “Keto Friendly” foods you’ll find are just lower carb alternatives to the processed sweets and convenience foods the Ketogenic Diet recommends staying away from in the first place. 

Vegan

The vegan trademark designates that no ingredients in the product in question have been sourced from animals, or have come in contact with animal products in their manufacturing. There are several different labels for vegan products, ranging from the Vegan Trademark to Certified Vegan, and more.

Similar to Keto, these labels help identify products that are safe for vegans to consume. But many vegan products are alternatives to traditional processed convenience foods, so this can be misleading if you are looking for a healthier alternative and reach for the vegan option thinking it will be.

So what’s the takeaway from all these food labels?

The common issue with most of these label claims is that while they are meant to be helpful, they are mostly misleading consumers to buy products that they think will be healthier options, also known as cleanwashing. Truthfully, the foods that don’t require labels (aka whole foods) are going to be the healthiest options, and the rest is up to you as the consumer if you want to add them to your pantry.

Don’t be hypnotized by flashy labels. Eat the foods your body craves!

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