It is difficult in our country to decipher what different food labels mean or what they can cause you to think about food in general. Health claims on food tend to offer you enormous benefits that are not necessarily backed by science, nor do they necessarily provide you with the benefit they claim to give.
Afer having analyzed labels in a variety of nutrition courses over time, I have created a list of these terms and labels and what they really mean – in hopes for you to reference them – whether they’re good, and informative, or…not that way. 😀
GLUTEN FREE: a food is only allowed this label if it contains 10 parts per million or less of gluten. This is often certified through the Gluten Free Intolerance Organization (GFIO) which is regulated with the USDA’s labeling standards. This label helps those with Celiac’s Disease spot “safe” foods, and others who are avoiding gluten by choice the same. Does gluten free mean “healthy?” Foods labeled “gluten free” are not necessarily healthier or more nutrient dense. There are plenty of cakes, cookies, pastries, crackers, and other processed foods now certified gluten free, offering those with an allergy or sensitivity, or Celiac Disease an option to enjoy their favorite foods too without gluten that causes them problems. If you see this label, you can safely assume is that there is NO GLUTEN in the product.
KOSHER: Probably the least known and recognized, Kosher foods are those that are deemed pure according to the Jewish law. Click here for all the standards for meat, fish, and other foods (koshercertification.org). This symbol above shows Americans that the food product is suitable to consume if one is observing dietary Kosher laws.
NATURAL: there isn’t a specific label that is associated with this nutrition claim simply because the term itself is misleading and ambiguous. The Food and Drug Administration, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture do not provide federal regulation as to what constitutes a “natural food.” This claim is misleading, vague, and cannot promise any benefits. Some food will be labeled as “natural” with other promised claims such as “no MSG, no preservatives, and no hydrogenated oil” which can be helpful to some, but remember, read the label, and that this claim is not regulated.
NON-GMO: a product with this label means that it does not contain any genetically modified organism (GMOs). The certification is based on the Non-GMO Project whose “commitment is to preserve and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO sources.” If a food contains this label, you can be assured that your food has not been genetically modified. Beyond this, non-GMO food may or may not have other significant health benefits.
ORGANIC: This label is regulated by the United States of Agriculture as clearly observed by the label. For a food product to earn this label, it has to be produced by approved methods: “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that fosters cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” Similar to the “gluten free” claim, you can be assured that food with this label IS organic, but does that necessarily translate to “healthy?” No. There simply isn’t enough research to conclude that products labeled as organic provide more benefits than those that are not.
VEGETARIAN: vegetarian products in the United States are not regulated by the FDA or USDA. Therefore, independent organizations in our country have pridefully labeled their food as such – promising the absence of meat or meat products in their food items. If you purchase something with the vegetarian label (often a green symbol with a plant on it), chances are, that company takes great pride in their product and ensuring their product does not contain meat. Does vegetarian mean “healthy”? Something labeled “vegetarian” simply means the product does not contain meat. Though a plant-based diet does have plenty of benefits, there are plenty of other factors to consider when determining if a vegetarian product is deemed, “healthy” such as if the product saturated fat, sugar content, whole grains, and processed ingredients.
VEGAN: Similar to vegetarian, this label isn’t regulated by a government branch, but it is regulated by private companies such as Vegan.org which promise that there is zero amount of animal product in compliance with vegan standards. Does vegan mean “healthy?” Again, as mentioned previously about vegetarian products, eating a plant-based diet has benefits backed by research, however, did you know Oreos are technically vegan (though they might be cross-contacted with milk in some countries) ? Oreos are made from high fructose corn syrup, and other food additives; so overall, just because something like an Oreo is vegan doesn’t necessarily mean it is “healthy.”
As with anything, it is important to be a well-informed consumer by reading labels thoroughly, and understanding what they mean. I hope that by reading this, you are able to make more educated decisions about choosing foods when shopping and what you choose to purchase!
As always, thank you for reading!