Registered Dietitian Deciphers Food Label Language

As we receive more information about our  food products, there’s a tendency for consumers to pay more attention to what we’re buying and putting in our bodies. This goes back  to eating clean – being aware of where our foods are grown, with what, and how they are brought to our grocery stores and, eventually, our plates.

That said, there are some fuzzy lines when it comes to labeling. Not all labels mean the same. And some, though they sound really good, don’t necessarily meet a set FDA standard.

Here’s are some quick definitions to clarify what labels mean. It’s a go-to-guide for you when you’re grocery shopping so you know what you’re getting with the labels on your foods.

An ingredient list: With the most predominant ingredients listed first.

Food Allergen Labeling: Though there are more than 160 foods that are known to cause allergies, these eight are responsible for more than 90% of food allergies: milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, soy bean. (The specific type of tree nut, fish, and shellfish must be declared).

USDA ORGANICOrganic: In the past, this was a guessing game. Now, though, the FDA has specific requirements for food products to meet to be labeled organic. Organic foods are not bio-engineered, don’t use pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and irradiation. Organic farmers have to meet strict regulations about water and soil use as well as treatment of animals. Nevertheless, foods are labeled differently according to their “degree” of being organic:

100% Organic: Products that are 100% organic. (For hens, the animals must have access to the outside and consume a vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. Beak cutting is allowed.)

Organic: Products that are certified 95% or more organic use this FDA label.

Made with organic ingredients: Products that are at least 70% organic. They, however, cannot use the FDA Organic food label, though will list the organic foods used in the product.

All-natural or natural: This does not mean organic. At this time, due to the overwhelming request of the public, the FDA is taking information about a petition that consumers are demanding what “natural” means in their food products. The official definition is that the product is “minimally processed.” But someone’s definition of minimal could be another’s excess.

GMO: Genetically Modified foods are getting a lot of heat. Consumers want to know. To date, food producers aren’t required, by law, to label their foods. But there are some pretty heated movements for the consumer’s “right to know” and I expect we’ll see the way labeling will change to provide consumers with the information they deserve.

certified_angus_beefCertified (eg: Certified Angus Beef): Certified is used when the USDA has evaluated the meat or poultry product for class, grade, and other quality characteristics. When using certified under other circumstances, the company, by law, must associate it with a specific name. EG. Mary Jane’s Certified Beef.

Free Range/Free Roaming: Farmers must prove to the USDA that the poultry have had free access to the outside.  That said, it’s not stipulated how much time these hens have access to the outside. It’s up to the individual farm.

Grass FedGrass Fed: Farms must prove that their animals’ diet is strictly from forage and no grains or grain byproducts are used to feed. This means, animals have to have continual access to outdoors. Producers must provide documentation including frequency and circumstance if the animals’ diets are supplemented.

No hormones added: In pork and poultry, hormones are strictly forbidden, so this label, too, is not allowed unless stipulated that “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” In beef products, however, “no hormones administered” can be used is the farm has enough documentation to prove that the cattle have not received hormone treatments.

No antibiotics: Like “no hormones administered” the farms have to have sufficient documentation to prove that no antibiotics have been administered to their animals.

With a wave of savvy consumers who want to know what we’re putting in our bodies, the FDA has responded and now provides us with more information and stricter standards when it comes to labeling. Be aware that not all labels carry the same weight. Some just sound and look pretty. With these above definitions, though, we can shop smarter and have the tools to make better choices for our families and our health.