Food labels can be so confusing and deceptive marketing language doesn’t help! That’s why we put together the ultimate guide to understanding food labels. Read on to gain the skill of understanding food labels and what they really mean.
You’re trying to make better choices. You’re trying to feed your family food that will nourish their bodies and minds. You’re doing your best, but maybe you’re left wondering if you could be making even better decisions about the food you bring into your home.
Everyone says, “Read the labels and you’ll be fine.” But those food labels are pretty darn confusing, aren’t they? Organic, natural, cage free… there are so many terms thrown out there, but do you know what they even mean?
If not, you’re not alone. Most moms I talk to don’t have a complete understanding of food labels and the increasing number of marketing terms that are tossed onto those labels. That’s why I want to share the facts about what these terms really mean – and what they don’t mean!
Below, you’ll find a list of common terms found on food labels as well as what they actually mean. If you’ve seen words on food labels that we didn’t list, let us know and we’ll add it for you!
The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Food Labels
1. Natural or All Natural
If you see the term All Natural on an item, it means there are no artificial ingredients like food coloring or preservatives. However, it’s not a guarantee that the product is healthy. Hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals might still be present.
Local foods are those that are grown or produced near where they are being sold. Choosing these is an eco-friendly choice, since less resources are used to transport the goods for sale. You’ll probably find that meat and produce items are much fresher, too. This isn’t a health claim; foods produced locally can still contain unhealthy ingredients.
One of the more regulated terms you’ll find on a food label is Organic. The USDA requires that certain standards must be met for foods to be defined this way. Organic foods are those that haven’t been sprayed with synthetic pesticides or raised with added hormones.
Genetically modified organisms have undergone serious genetic manipulation in order to become more resistant to pesticides and to yield bigger or more colorful crops. Some research suggests that these plants are unstable, so many people choose to avoid them for health or environmental reasons. The Non-GMO Project Verified label indicates that there are no GMOs in a product.
5. Gluten Free
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and a few other grains that gives dough an elastic texture. It can also be used as an additive by food (and even makeup!) manufacturers to achieve a different product consistency. Gluten free indicates that a food does not contain gluten as an additive or any gluten-containing ingredients.
6. Grain Free
Grain free foods are those that do not contain any grains whatsoever, including oats, wheat, corn, rice, barley or quinoa.
Vegan foods contain absolutely no animal-derived ingredients like honey, eggs, meat or dairy. They are not necessarily healthy – vegan foods can still contain loads of sugar, for example.
Whole grain or whole wheat foods use the whole kernel of grain, making them contain more nutrients than their refined counterparts. Some research shows that the bran of the whole grain can actually inhibit nutrient absorption, so you’ll find varying views on which option is better.
9. Fat Free
Foods labeled fat free have less than half a gram of fat per serving. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make them healthy – loss of flavor is often made up for with added sugar or other “flavor-enhancing” additives.
10. No Trans Fat
Unfortunately, this is a tricky one. As long as the food item contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, they can label it as Trans Fat Free or No Trans Fat. No amount of trans fat in your diet is considered safe or healthy.
11. Sugar Free
While this sounds like a great label to look for, it can be another one to watch out for. Instead of adding sugar, the company may have added artificial sweeteners. You want to avoid those even more than you want to avoid sugar, so read the ingredients first.
12. Low Calorie
Low calorie foods are those that have less than 40 calories per serving. This does not necessarily mean the food is a healthy choice.
13. Fair Trade
Fair trade foods and products are made with the goal of creating sustainability and better working conditions for laborers. Look for it on imported foods like chocolate and coffee.
Foods with light or lite on the label have either 1/3 fewer calories, or half the fat or sodium of the food they are being compared to.
15. Cage Free/Free Range
Eggs and poultry that are labeled cage-free sounds like a great label to look for – it means that the animals haven’t been raised in cages. However, there are more factors that go into healthy living conditions for birds. Cage free birds can still be crowded, fed an unhealthy diet, and given hormones and antibiotics, for example.
Similarly, free range sounds great in theory, but often means very little. It’s best to understand how much free and open space the chickens have access to (and how often) as well as what they chickens are fed and treated with.
16. Pasture Raised
Pasture raised is a better label to look for when it comes to eggs and poultry. Pasture raised birds are actually allowed to roam outside. They’ll be able to eat bugs and live a healthier lifestyle – like they were meant to!
Meat labeled grass-fed comes from cows that were able to eat grass from the pasture. This meat is proven to be more nutritious than meat that comes from solely grain-fed cows. If you would like more information about your meat, consider contacting the company to ask if cattle are grass-fed for their entire lives or if they are simply “grass finished.” This information isn’t required to use the grass fed label, but cattle who are “grass finished” are typically fed a grain diet their entire lives and then allowed to pasture for a short while just before slaughter.
18. Hormone Free
Hormones are often given to animals to make them bigger and/or to produce more “product.” Unfortunately, the hormones remain within the animals and are passed to you when you eat their meat, eggs or dairy. The old saying, “You are what you eat,” can actually go a step further. You are also what what you eat, eats! Look for the hormone free or no added hormones label on your meat and dairy products.
19. BPA Free
BPA is a chemical used in plastics that’s been shown to leach into food and build up in humans. It’s been linked to health problems, including fetal abnormalities. Look for foods packaged without BPA, particularly when it comes to acidic foods like tomatoes.
20. Wild Caught
Wild caught fish are those sourced from seas, lakes and rivers. They are not farmed. Wild caught fish are typically more nutritious than farmed fish. Many also feel that it’s much more humane to eat wild fish.
Keep in mind that these terms and definitions are based on current U.S. guidelines. If you live in another country, be sure to verify how these phrases can be legally used in your area so you can make informed choices.