What Do Food Labels *Really* Mean? Specifics

All-natural. Organic. Low fat. Free-Range.

We see these words on food labels every day, but what do they actually mean? Do they even have a meaning, or are they just marketing tools? The USDA requires food labels to be truthful, but exactly how they define their terms and how closely they monitor food manufacturers is often a mystery. To help you decipher the 'code' that is the modern food label, here are some of the definitions I found.

Organic. The buzzword 'organic' refers to meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products that come from animals that weren't given any hormones or antibiotics. When it comes to plant-based foods, 'organic' means that they have not been treated with the more common pesticides, grown with synthetic or 'sewage-sludge' fertilizers, gone through bioengineering (as defined by the USDA) or exposed to radiation. The USDA inspects these foods and processing very closely, so not just anyone can call their foods 'organic'. Manufacturers that want to use the 'official' label must be registered and submit to rather strict standards. 'Made with organic ingredients' means that at least 70% of its ingredients are grown and processed according to the USDA's standards.

As to whether or not it's worth the extra cost to 'buy organic' is up to you. To be perfectly honest, many of my 'foodie' friends say that organic foods aren't necessarily better than their 'non-organic' counterparts. While it's great to consider how the animals our meats come from are treated, it's more about activism than actual improvements to the taste or nutritional value of the food. In fact, one of them said that some people only buy organic so that they can claim to be environmentally-conscious and look good to their pretentious neighbors. Can you tell my friend is cynical? :) As to whether he's right, I don't know. Like I said, that's up to you.

Monounsaturated fat. The 'good fats' found in foods such as olives, nuts and avocados that can help lower the LDL ('bad') cholesterol.

Polyunsaturated fat. The 'good fats' found in foods like salmon and soybean oil that add essential 'fatty acids' such as omega-3 and omega-6.

Hydrogenated. Hydrogenation is a process that turns a liquid fat (such as those mentioned above and their oils) into a more solid fat and extends its shelf life. You're likely to see this word on labels of things like margarines or other spreads. The problem comes when these oils are only partially-hydrogenated, which is the case with much of what we see on our shelves. This is what creates the trans-fats that can raise cholesterol.

Basically, the 'solid' fats such as trans-fats and saturated fats are the ones to be avoided if possible.

Free-range. Animals that are allowed to 'run free'; they are not kept in cages and can graze freely. This doesn't mean that they aren't constrained in any way, just that they have access to the 'outside world' rather than being kept in a cage or coop all the time.

All-natural. Basically, a 'natural' food does not contain any artificial ingredients or preservatives. This really only applies to meat and poultry products. Otherwise, it doesn't mean much. 

For some of the more 'generic' terms, see the next post.  

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