Labeling on food packages: What the words on your food label really mean

“Gluten-free”, “Free-range”, “Natural”, “Low sodium” – just a small sampling of phrases used on the front of food and beverage labels. If you take note of these words on labels it’s likely you never thought twice about questioning their validity or actual meaning. Many words or phrases used on food and beverage labels are federally regulated, but it may be unclear what exactly they mean. On top of that some are unregulated, have no standard definition, and come with no guarantee at all.

What do I mean by regulated?  There are three main agencies that have a stake in overseeing food and beverage labeling: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). (Here the focus will be on front-of package labeling, not the nutrition facts panel typically contained on the back or side.) Each agency has a role in the regulation process but quite often they work together:

FDARegulates how most food (exception: meat, poultry, and egg products) is processed, packaged, and labeled. Also sets definitions for ingredients and labeling (for example, even words like “mayonnaise” are defined and regulated.)

USDADevelops labeling guidance and inspection/enforcement actions for meat, poultry, and egg products. Also contains the National Organic program which manages the production guidance, definitions, and labeling for organic foods.

FTCPrimarily responsible for regulating and enforcing policy on food advertising, to include package claims.

All of these standards, definitions, regulations, and enforcement actions are designed to protect the consumer.  Quite often companies use certain words or phrases as a marketing technique, when in actuality they mean very little or are completely false. So let’s take a look at a few of the more popular phrases these days, whether or not they are regulated, and what that means for you.

Organic: REGULATED.  The National Organic Program overseen by the USDA is the only certified organic program in the United States. Foods without the USDA organic seal are not certified organic.  Conversely, you may find food at your local farmer’s market which is organic by every definition but the farm is not certified and thus there is no label (the program can be cost prohibitive to some).  Recognize the organic program is targeted at sustainability and production, not necessarily nutrition. The question of whether or not to purchase organic foods is a personal decision and a topic for another day.

Free-range: REGULATED. This USDA-defined term indicates the flock was given shelter and had unlimited access to food, fresh water, and the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may still be fenced or covered with netting.

Cage-free: REGULATED. This USDA-defined term means the flock roamed freely within an enclosed shelter while having unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle. So they may still be tightly packed  into an enclosed area, just no cage.

Natural: LOOSELY REGULATED. This is a term only recognized by the USDA, which means it is only aimed at meat, poultry, and egg products. It is defined as “minimally processed and contain[s] no artificial ingredients”. “Natural” used on any other food or beverage product has no formal definition but may be policed by the FDA, such as a case in 2013 where a company was given a warning letter for using “natural” on a cracker label yet listing an artificial flavoring in the ingredients .

Grass-fed: REGULATED. This term indicates an animal consumed grass for nutrients a majority of the time (grains may be provided to supplement the diet.) “Grass-fed” is not synonymous with organic and allows for the use of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides.  “Grass-fed organic” would meet both definitions, but recognize even organic animals’ diets may be supplemented with grains.

Pasture-Raised: UNREGULATED. There is no standard definition or guarantee with this claim.

Humanely raised: UNREGULATED. There is no standard definition or guarantee with this claim.

No added hormones: REGULATED…SOMEWHAT. Federal regulations have always prohibited the use of hormones in pork and poultry products. A company using this phrase is likely capitalizing its advertising on a requirement for all companies within that food sector. The phrase is undefined for any non-pork or non-poultry products.

Gluten-free: REGULATED. As of August 2, 2103 the FDA defined and began regulating the term “gluten-free” on labels. Products must contain less than 20 parts per million gluten in order to use it, and similar phrases such as “free of gluten” and “no gluten” must also comply with the guidelines. This advancement is linked to the already-required identification of the eight major allergens on labels and meant to help individuals with Celiac disease. There is no federally standardized certification program or logo to identify gluten-free items, such as the National Organic Program.

There are many, many, many other words or phrases that are federally regulated and require enforcement for their misuse (“light”, “low sodium”, “healthy”, “fresh” – check them all out here.) The FDA also frequently sends warning letters to companies for making claims about a product’s ability to “treat, prevent, or cure diseases”, a practice which is not allowed.

Arming yourself with just a basic understanding of these programs and terms will allow for making educated decisions when choosing foods and beverages (and don’t forget to use the back of the package for info as well.)  Recognize the confluence of federal oversight, industry marketing, and consumer preference that occurs in a grocery store and you’ll be able to see a bit clearer.


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