Interpreting A Label, Part I – Speaking The Language

January 25th, 2009 - filed under: The Food » Food and Health

Project Awesome, Phase One: You’ve decided to start eating better. Good for you! Eating right is simply key for a happy brain and a happy body. You’re going to feel good, you’re going to look good – you’re going to steamroll through Project Awesome! But unfortunately, making the decision to eat healthily is only the first step. Putting your intention into action is where the hard work really begins. Because like most people, you’re probably wondering, “Wait, what IS ‘healthy’?”

Have you ever stood in front of a grocery store peanut butter display, gazing upon jar after brightly colored jar, trying to figure out your best option? (the answer is ‘d. – none of the above: choose almond butter’, but we’ll cover that another time) Is there a difference between ‘certified organic’ and ‘100% organic’? Is ‘vitamin fortified’ the same as ‘vitamin enriched’? And what does ‘all natural’ actually mean, anyways? Trying to decipher the catalogue of code words and buzz phrases printed in boldly hued, seductively-fonted typeface and splashed across products is overwhelming, and can be downright discouraging. But you mustn’t give up just yet – this stuff is important!

It is absolutely necessary to feed yourself food that will actually nourish you, but you can only do that once you understand how to select the purest, most nutritious options. In the face of 50 years of intentionally misleading marketing, you can learn to cut through the chaos and decode the ad-man doublespeak. Did you know that almost every statement placed on a package must adhere to a very strict set of federally regulated guidelines? These advertising slogans are actually required to comply with straightforward, black and white, cut and dry standards. So, all you need to do is learn to speak the language. And once you become fluent in ‘Nutrition-ese’, you will never again have to worry about falling for some silly chemical-rich, nutrient-deficient faux health food product! All of this information (and much more), unless otherwise noted, is available online at the USDA website.  So ready? Here we go.

Alright, what does organic mean, exactly?

A lot of people have a general association with the term organic, without necessarily understanding what the word does – and does not – indicate. Put most simply, ‘organic’ refers to the way in which an item is grown (plants/fungi) or raised (animals), and then processed for production. Organics are free of most pesticides and herbicides, free of commercial and artificial fertilizers, free of sewage contamination, free of any genetic modification or genetically modified ingredients, and have never been irradiated.  Organics are not necessarily kosher (and kosher products are not necessarily organic), fair trade, locally grown, anti- corporate or anti-factory farming, and the title gives no indication as to the treatment of the workers who handle the product.

The use of the word ‘organic’ is regulated by the USDA, via the National Organic Program (NOP). Under guidelines established in 2002, anything marked organic must adhere to strict production standards and labeling practices. Large-scale operations (those grossing over $5,000 annually) are required to become ‘certified organic’ by a USDA-accredited agency. The name of the certifying agency must then be displayed on the packaging. In products containing multiple items, each organic ingredient must be identified as such on the information panel. The USDA claims to apply these requirements to US made and foreign imported goods, equally.

There are four categories of organic labels officially recognized by the NOP. These are:

100% Organic: Every ingredient and additive is organic, except in the case of water and salt.

Organic: Less than 5% of all ingredients and additives are not officially organic; 95% or more are considered organic. Again, this does not include water and salt.

Made with Organic Ingredients: Between 70% and 94% of the total ingredients and additives are verifiably organic, exempting water and salt. The final product may not display the USDA Organic seal.

Some Organic Ingredients: Less than 70% of the total ingredients are organic. There is no minimum requirement of organic ingredients. The final product may not display the USDA Organic seal or the certifying agent seal.

So then, what is meant by Natural?

Foods labeled ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ are not organically grown, although they are often marketed alongside their organic counterparts. The USDA also regulates use of the word ‘natural’, but unlike organics, there is no certification involved. For labeling purposes, ‘natural’ means that the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it has been ‘minimally processed’. In this case, minimally processed is defined as not fundamentally changing the original, raw ingredient/s. Additionally, and this is awesome, the label must indicate why the term is being used – for example they must state, “no artificial coloring”, or “unprocessed”. Remember, ‘natural’ only applies to these select few criteria: coloring, artificial ingredients, and processing.

The ‘natural’ label does not confer any other limits or restrictions. In other words, genetically modified organisms can be sold as ‘natural’. Beef that was raised using hormones or antibiotics can be called ‘all natural’ as well. ‘Natural’ food is not organic food, and the guidelines for this label are much more vague. Shop cautiously and eat carefully.

. . . To Be Continued . . .

Part II

Part III


  • Dedrian Clark

    I enjoyed your blog. I would like to add one bit of information, however. Organic does not necessarily mean free of GMOs. Organic products are NOT tested for GMO contamination. The Non-GMO Project, created by leaders from all sectors of the organic and natural foods industry, have the only third party verification program in the United States. Over 50% of the brands enrolled are organic and many have enrolled due to contamination found in their products. Non-GMO Project Verified products are compliant with a uniform, consensus-based definition of non-GMO. Please refer to the Non-GMO website to learn more.