Understanding Food Labels: Just the Facts

Good nutrition is a foundation of good health. Along with exercise, stress reduction, enough sleep and many other good habits, eating well will help us stay healthy or regain health. Eating the right foods in the right amounts can help us maintain healthy weights, which is essential for lifelong good health.

Most of us try to eat healthy foods, but knowing exactly what the terms mean on food labels can help anyone make better decisions regarding the healthful benefits—or lack thereof—of any food. There is a lot of terminology used regarding the health benefits of food, but some of it can be confusing. Some of it is purposely misleading through marketing, in hopes that the consumer will purchase, consume, enjoy and repeat—all the while thinking they are eating food that is good for them when in effect, it may not be.

Making sense of the common words used on food labels is an art and a science. Some of them are concrete terms, some are more abstract, such as “natural” or “healthy.” This article aims to provide objective information regarding the use of/meanings of terms commonly used on food labels, not to offer advice regarding your purchase/consumption of foods with these terms on the labels.

“Healthy” is likely the most vague and meaningless word that can appear on a label. It sounds good, it may make the buyer feel like they are purchasing food that is good for them, but in many cases, it is simply included on the label to increase confidence in the buyer that they are indeed purchasing “healthy” food. It must be, the buyer thinks. It says so, right there on the label. And the manufacturer makes money on that word.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have an official definition in place to enforce the use of the word “natural” on labels. They do have an official policy issued in 1993 regarding the use of the term that states:

“FDA has not objected to the use of this term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Use of the term “natural” is not permitted in a product’s ingredient list with the exception of the phrase “natural flavorings.”

Recent online forums on the FDA website have asked the public for their input. Several citizen petitions were presented to the FDA to address the use of this term, one asked for them to ban it altogether. Their goal is to determine, if it is appropriate to do so, what the definition of “natural” should be, and how it should determine appropriate use of this term on labels. This online forum was closed for discussion in May of this year, and the results can be viewed at: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=FDA-2014-N-1207.


One term that does have strict rules regarding its use is organic.
As defined by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), the following rules apply:

  • Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • This includes grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and turkey, non GMO (genetically modified organism, to be expanded upon later in this article) fed chicken eggs and milk without rBST hormone, which is a hormone that helps cows produce more milk, usually to help the farmer/manufacturer profit.
  • Organic plant foods are produced without using pesticides, fertilizers or radiation.
  • A government-approved certifier must inspect the farm for proper standards, which include processing and handling.

There are three levels of organic claims for food:

  • 1: 100% organic. Fully organic or made of only organic ingredients. Foods that qualify for the 100% organic label receive the official USDA seal.
  • 2: Organic. At least 95% of the ingredients are organic.
  • 3: Made with organic ingredients. At least 70% of ingredients are certified organic. With these foods, a USDA organic seal cannot be used, but may state “made with organic ingredients” on the front label.

It is important to realize that while any food that is organic is favorable, it isn’t necessarily a health food. Organic ice cream is still ice cream, and there are healthier choices one could make than ice cream.
It is widely agreed among nutritionists that there are some foods that have higher levels of pesticides. Known informally as “The Dirty Dozen”, the following fruits and vegetables are considered the most contaminated:

  • peaches
  • apples
  • sweet bell peppers
  • celery
  • nectarines
  • strawberries
  • cherries
  • pears
  • imported grapes
  • spinach
  • lettuce
  • potatoes
  • Conversely, the following list of 12 fruits and vegetables are considered the least contaminated:

    • onions
    • avocado
    • frozen sweet corn
    • pineapple
    • mango
    • asparagus
    • frozen sweet peas
    • kiwi fruit
    • bananas
    • cabbage
    • broccoli
    • papaya

    As a rule of thumb, the thicker the skin—such as a banana or avocado—the lower the levels of contamination. Also, if a food travels from a foreign country, such as grapes from Mexico, the greater the chance they are contaminated with pesticides in order to survive the long trip.

    Organic foods are more expensive. If your budget is limited but you would still like to include organic foods in your meals, consider the above lists. Also, remember that, unless it is a fruit or vegetable, it may not necessarily be more nutritious just because it is organic. Recall the ice cream example…


    When you purchase food that is produced locally, this helps to promote environmental sustainability, and supports local producers. This is a positive practice, and, logically, should be engaged in whenever possible. However, many foods cannot be grown locally in all areas, and a higher cost may be prohibitive for some people. A rule of thumb, as with the organic contamination issue, is to purchase foods that are produced as close to you as possible.

    Whenever foods can be purchased in their most pure form, this is considered “whole.” Nothing is added; nothing is processed. There are no regulatory terms for this, but it includes fresh produce, dairy, whole grains, meat and fish.

    GMO –genetically modified organism—as it relates to this article, is a food whose genetic composition has been altered. This was referred to earlier in the article. The arguments against it are that it possibly compromises the nutritive levels, and possibly the safety of foods, as well as creating negative effects on the environment, although the credibility of the evidence against it is argued. There is much debate and disagreement over both sides of this issue, and online searches will present both sides of the argument.


    There are many terms that are used on food labels, and are not dictated or controlled by the FDA, USDA, or any agency. When these terms appear on food labels, there is no concrete definition, and they are generally used for marketing. While they are positive attributes, be aware that they may not make your food healthier:

    • all-natural: some all natural foods have no nutritional value, such as certain sodas.
    • fresh: vague, ill-defined. Is it one day old? Two?
    • superfoods: certain berries such as acai and goji berries are advertised as superfoods, but there is no legal definition. This term is easily abused, and eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is the best advice most nutritionists would give.
    • energy-boosting: caffeine is frequently added to many foods and drinks to back up this claim.
    • diet: many diet drinks and foods have added chemicals and artificial sweeteners.
    • sugar-free: typically artificial sweeteners are used.
    • low-carb: read the labels to determine the exact number of carbs. ‘Low’ to one person may mean something different to another.
    • multi-grain: some grains are more nutritious than others. High-fiber and 100% whole grain breads are likely most nutritious. Check for added sugar as well.
    • antioxidants: All fruits and vegetables have antioxidants.


    Eating healthy should be a goal for all of us. Determining exactly what is healthy can be a challenge, given the word salad of terminology used to describe the nutritive value of foods. Remember that marketing is a savvy science, and many of these words are used in food marketing to create a sense of eating healthy, when, in effect, the words used are used too vaguely to provide concrete information about exactly what you are eating.

    Eating well doesn’t have to be drudgery, difficult or boring. Some of the most nutritious foods are delicious, “natural,” and “healthy.” Just be sure you know what those words mean for you.
    Given that this article is meant to be informational only, without advice, one last thing must be said, and it is likely what your mother told you all along:

    “Eat your vegetables!”