Decoding Food Label Claims

February 15, 2017

Have you ever picked one grocery item over another because of claims like “no hormones added,” “all-natural” or “organic”? Although 59% of people do not fully understand these food labels, research shows we’re more likely to purchase items with health claims. But are these foods actually healthier, or do companies just paste these labels to their products to make them seem so? Here’s the low-down to decoding these food labels and understanding which ones you should trust, and which ones you should be skeptical of.


All Natural: The FDA has not developed a definition for the use of this term. The agency, however, does not object to the use of the term if the product is free of any synthetic or artificial ingredients, or added color. This term is not intended to address pesticides, food manufacturing like pasteurizations or nutritional adequacy.


Organic: According to the USDA there are four terms for organic food products. 100 percent organic, organic, made with organic and products containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients.  Items that are “100 percent organic”  contain 100% organic ingredients. Organic may be displayed on products that contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. Made with organic may be used on products that contain at least 70 % of organic ingredients. And Products with less than 70% can not display the USDA organic seal or the word organic. These products are produced using methods thought to be good for the earth.


Good Source or Excellent Source: If food contains between 10-19% of the daily recommendation of a nutrient, it can be labeled a “good source.” This terminology can be used interchangeably with “contains” or “provides.” Food must have over 20% of the daily recommendation of a nutrient to be considered an “excellent source,” or “high” or “rich in.”


GMO claims: Short for Genetically Modified Organisms, GMO is monitored by the FDA.  "We use the term “genetic engineering” to refer to genetic modification practices that utilize modern biotechnology. In this process, scientists make targeted changes to a plant’s genetic makeup to give the plant a new desirable trait. For example, two new apple varieties have been genetically engineered to resist browning associated with cuts and bruises by reducing levels of enzymes that can cause browning." The FDA is not currently taking enforcement action against these terms unless they are found misleading or false.


Fat-Free and Sugar-Free: Foods with this claim are strictly regulated and must contain less than 0.5 grams of fat or sugar per serving. Decreasing fat and sugar intake can lower the calories in your diet. However, these claims lead to a false conception of health. When removing fat, manufacturers often increase sugar to keep products tasty. Also, “sugar-free” doesn’t always mean fewer calories and many times sugar is replaced with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols.


No Antibiotics or raised without antibiotics: Regulated by the USDA, this term is only used on red meat, poultry, and egg packages. To add this label producers must provide documentation indicating the animal was raised without antibiotics. Milk from cows treated with antibiotics cannot be sold. So you should never see Milk with “no antibiotics” claim.


Healthy: For the first time in 20 years, the FDA has a definition for the word healthy. It focuses on the position of fat. Manufacturers may now use the term healthy on labels if their food is not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats or contains at least 10% of the daily value of potassium or vitamin D.

For more information about food, claims check out the FDA’s website. And remember buyer beware, there is no list of approved and unapproved claims, food advertising terms can be murky and difficult to identify.

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