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Nutrition: How food labels define the terms organic, natural and cage-free

Young woman reading food labels

Next time you go grocery shopping, take a few extra minutes to glance over the labels on some of your favorite packaged foods. Most likely you’ll notice a bunch of food and health claims like “organic,” “natural” and “cage-free.” While some claims are meaningful and help differentiate choices, others are quite misleading. Food labels no longer just tell us what’s in the package, but have become increasingly complicated, describing how the food was made and even deciphering whether it’s healthy. Here are some terms to understand to help you best choose how to spend your grocery shopping dollars.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for determining which claims may be used on a food label. There are three main types of food claims. First, there are nutrient content claims such as “low-fat” and “high in fiber,” which refer to the amount of a nutrient that there is in a product. Next, there are health claims, which suggest a relationship between a food and a health condition or disease. Finally, there are structure or function claims, such as “calcium builds strong bones,” which described the relationship between a nutrient and body physiology.

Claims that state a food reduces the risk of a disease or health condition are not allowed on food labels unless it is an approved health claim, which has been submitted to and reviewed by the FDA. Here are some other commonly used terms on food packages with varying levels of governmental regulation and oversight.

What is a Healthy Food?

The term “healthy” seems to be used often to describe foods, but what does healthy actually mean? The FDA advises food manufacturers to use this nutrient content claim only if the food is higher in beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats or contains at least ten percent of the daily value of potassium or vitamin D. This means that one serving of the food should provide ten percent of the daily requirement of potassium or vitamin D for someone consuming 2,000 calories a day.

Labeling Chickens and Eggs

You may notice your egg carton has many labels on it. Often times the more of these voluntary claims that are made, the higher the cost of the eggs. The terms cage-free and free-range are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but the meanings can be a bit misleading. A cage-free chicken should be able to freely roam a building, room or other enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water. A free-range chicken should be able to also roam an enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water plus have continuous access to outdoors, which can be met with the inclusion of an open window regardless of whether the hen actually goes outdoors.

Eggs that are Humane Certified undergo third-party verification through Humane Farm Animal Care, which requires a certain amount of outdoor space per hen as well as other standards of living requirements. Also, not regulated by the USDA, the term Pasture-Raised may also be seen on Humane Certified egg cartons, verifying that each bird is allowed 108 square-feet to roam.

Natural Versus Organic Labeling

The term “natural” is used so frequently in the food industry despite there being no consensus on its actual meaning. While there is an understanding that natural indicates a lack of synthetic or artificial ingredients added to a food, the term is not regulated by the FDA. Because the “natural” label is debatable, a stricter definition may come to fruition. At the same time, USDA Certified Organic products must strictly adhere to production and labeling requirements, which are overseen by the USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agents.

Facts About Grains

Breads, cereals and other grain products are often labeled with the terms “multigrain” or “whole grain,” but what does this mean and is one better than the other? Whole grains are minimally processed grains like brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, millet, and popcorn. Some whole grain products like whole wheat bread is made from whole grain flour that is not refined so it contains more fiber and other important nutrients. A food labeled multigrain contains more than one grain, but there is no requirement that multigrain foods be made from whole grain flour. Therefore, multigrain foods are not necessarily minimally processed and may not be as good of a choice as whole grain.

It is important to look past labels, which are often marketing jargon, and read the Nutrition Facts label and food ingredients list to determine the healthfulness of a product and decide how it fits into the overall eating pattern. While some of these terms indicate a product meets certain regulatory requirements, others have minimal importance.

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