Decoding Food Labels

Food labels. Some of us know exactly how to read them, and some of us aren’t clear about what “natural,” “Non-GMO” or even “organic” really means. Here is a short guide that can help.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program oversees the certifications for organic food sold in the United States. By definition, organic foods have not been genetically modified and are grown without chemical pesticides or fungus repellents. Animals used for organic meat were raised without antibiotics or hormones, and there were no fertilizers or by-products in their feed (1). There are many subcategories of the organic label. It is important to note that the process to become certified, even for smaller companies, is thorough and scrupulous.
• 100% Organic: Foods made with 100% organic ingredients may carry the USDA Organic seal and say they are “100% Organic”(2).
• Organic: Some products contain 95–99% organic ingredients. Such items can be labeled “Organic” and may carry the USDA Organic seal (1–2).
• Made with Organic Ingredients: Foods using this language contain 70–94% organic ingredients. They do not carry the USDA Organic seal, but instead can list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging that are organic (2).
• Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list the word organic preceding appropriate ingredients (2).

For some people, the reason for choosing organic is because it’s better for the environment than conventional farming. Others feel organic produce is more nutritious and fear the negative health effects that are sometimes linked with pesticides and additives in foods.

Unlike “organic,” the term “natural” is more nebulous. The U.S. government has no standards in place to regulate use of the term “natural” in processed foods. This means that companies use the word “natural” differently, leading to confusion about some ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup. Some firms believe this is a natural ingredient, and others don’t.

Several nonprofits have developed their own certification processes for natural ingredients and finished products, but standards differ by the group. Some stricter interpretations of “all-natural” mean that foods are minimally processed and don’t have artificial flavoring/colors, chemical preservatives or synthetic ingredients. If you’re unsure about whether a food is truly all-natural, check with your local natural products store.
Animal Cruelty Labeling
Eating “free range” products may seem ethical, but the government’s standards for labeling are hazy. “Free-Range” or “Free-Roaming” animals are loosely defined as being animals that ate grass and lived on a range. There are no requirements on the amount of space given to each animal; animals just must have some access to the outdoors. Some pens are too crowded for animals to ever make their way through the pack to get outside. Furthermore, some inhumane methods are used to kill these animals (3).

If you’re concerned about eating meat from humanely raised animals, look for the seals from third-party groups like the Animal Welfare Association and Humane Farm Animal Care. These groups ensure that their strict guidelines for animal welfare are being followed. For instance, they insist animals are not cooped up with no space, are fed clean drinking water and food without growth hormones, are protected from harsh weather and are slaughtered in a cruelty-free manner (4).

Many feel there are health benefits to this system. Free-range, humanely raised cattle tend to be leaner and healthier (6). Meat from grass-fed animals will typically contain more omega-3s, more vitamin E and more beta-carotene, and have less of a chance of containing E. coli than conventional meat (4).

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are defined as organisms whose DNA has been altered for some purpose (such as for plants to grow resistant to bugs and diseases). The original purpose was to increase crop yield, but they aren’t technically “natural.” Such species can even be created with genetic combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viruses.

Since GMOs only were developed fairly recently, their long-term effects on humans and the environment have not been proven. The anti-GMO community argues that GMOs are not natural, and could wind up contaminating crops that are natural or organic (5). Recently, some GMO crops like alfalfa were deregulated. This caused an uproar because it is believed that through pollination, the GMOs will crossbreed with non-GMOs. Since GMOs don’t need to be labeled as such, many consumers don’t even realize they are eating them (8). The only way to ensure you’re not eating GMOs is to buy organic foods or those certified and labeled as Non-GMO by a third party.

There is a movement that is rapidly gaining support called the Non-GMO Project. The proponents of this project claim that GMO regulation is not as meticulous as it should be. For a list of products the group has certified as Non-GMO, visit (6). WF

1. U.S. Department of Agriculture,, accessed Feb. 23, 2011.
2.,, accessed Feb. 23, 2011.
3. “A Label You Can Trust,”, accessed Feb. 23, 2011.
4. K. Agin, “Greener Pastures,” WholeFoods Magazine, 33 (8), 19–23 (2010).
5. G. Kemp, M. Paul and R. Segal, “Organic Foods,” updated April 2010,, accessed February 23, 2011
6. Non-GMO Project,, accessed Feb. 23, 2011.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2011