An Eater’s Guide to Food Labels

Food packaging isn’t just the shell that protects or contains a product. It’s a powerful miniature billboard—a tool that food producers use to reel in customers.

It’s also a document, of sorts, that conveys how a food was produced and whether the government has overseen that process.

The problem for consumers? Knowing the difference.

This week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will begin to consider input from the public and the food industry on how best to define “natural,” one of the most misused and misunderstood terms in food—and one that has immense marketing power. (See “So What do ‘Natural’ and ‘Healthy’ Really Mean?“)

But the agency’s effort is only the latest attempt by government regulators to clarify for consumers what certain terms mean and what they say about how a food is grown or made. And, when the FDA has finished its job, chances are that food packages will still baffle consumers who are faced with a bewildering assault of messages and claims.

Here, The Plate attempts to de-baffle with a guide to helping you understand just what a package, label, or term actually means—and what it doesn’t.

The claim: Natural

Currently, the FDA—which regulates most of the food supply—doesn’t define natural, meaning companies are free to call their products natural or all-natural even if that defies what a consumer might reasonably expect. Consumers have filed dozens of lawsuits against food companies for calling their foods natural when they contain synthetic or genetically engineered ingredients or if pesticides are used on them.

Many companies have decided to stop using the term for fear of being sued, but because the term is so compelling to shoppers—and helps sell billions in food products—many continue to use it even when, critics say, there are plenty of “unnatural” ingredients included.

Pushed by consumers and consumer groups, the agency last year said it would attempt to define natural. But the food industry and attorneys say this could be a very complicated task.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat and poultry, has a very specific definition: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.”

The take-home: Natural is not regulated or defined by the FDA, so the term can be applied freely to most processed foods or drinks. Meat, poultry, or eggs labeled “natural,” on the other hand, have to be natural.

The claim: Non-GMO or GE-free

The FDA considers genetically engineered ingredients to be “substantially equivalent” to those produced by conventional growing methods. This means it has not, and does not, require foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to bear a label.

But plenty of companies make “non-GMO” or “GE-free” claims. These terms are not specifically regulated by the FDA. Keep in mind, though, that only a handful of produce items currently in the food supply are genetically engineered—a few types of squash and papaya, among them. (So if you see a “Non-GMO” label on a bunch of broccoli, you’re being misled. There is no GMO broccoli on the market.)

The vast majority of corn and soy grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, however, which means a majority of processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup or soy ingredients. (A lot of oils sold as vegetable oils, for example, are made from soybeans.) A majority of U.S.-grown canola and sugar beets are also genetically engineered.

At least 60 countries require foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to have some kind of label. This July, Vermont will become the first state to require foods to have a label indicating genetically engineered ingredients.

The FDA has issued guidelines for companies that want to make “GMO-free” claims, but the agency doesn’t police those. It does, however, have broader requirements that say a food’s label has to be truthful and that it’s illegal to sell unsafe food.

The take-home: If you care about whether your food contains genetically engineered ingredients, look to third-party certifications such as the Non-GMO project, buy USDA-certified “Organic,” or buy your groceries in Vermont starting this summer.

The claim: Organic

The agriculture department oversees the organic program, which bestows the familiar green-and-white circular icon on products produced without synthetic ingredients, synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, or genetic engineering. Producers who get the label have to go through a strict certification process.

The National Organic Standards Board meets regularly to decide what processes or ingredients it will permit and has agreed that some nonorganic ingredients are allowed under the organic label. (Under the program, 5 percent of an organic product can be nonorganic, but if it’s labeled “100 percent organic” it must be entirely organic.)

Bear in mind, though, that a product could very well be organically grown but not have the department’s label. Some producers merely decide they don’t want to go through the trouble or spend the money to earn the seal.

The take-home: With a few exceptions, the agriculture department’s organic label means what it says.

The claim: Cage-free, free range, or free-roaming chickens/eggs

According to the agriculture department, eggs labeled “cage-free” or “free-roaming” are “laid by hens that are allowed to roam in a room or open area, which is typically a barn or poultry house,” while “free-range” or “pasture-fed” eggs are “produced by hens raised outdoors or with access to outdoors.”

Critics maintain, however, that these terms are not well policed, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation. An egg might be marked “cage-free,” for example, but the chicken could live its life in a poultry house crammed with birds and have very little room to move. The same goes for chickens bred for meat.

Under the agency’s organic program, new rules are being considered that will require meaningful outdoor access for hens that produce organically raised eggs.

The take-home: Look for the organic label, or get to know a local egg farmer from your farmers market.

The claim: Humanely raised

Under the decades-old Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, livestock has to be slaughtered in a way that reduces the animal’s suffering. The law doesn’t apply to chickens, though, and doesn’t outline how an animal should live before slaughter.

A number of third-party certification systems have popped up in recent years as more consumers have become concerned about how animals live—and die. The Global Animal Partnership, for example, using a five-step rating system, and Animal Welfare Approved has developed stringent standards for livestock. These programs audit producers to make sure they’re adhering to their rules.

A company can use the term “humanely raised” or another similar term, but that claim isn’t verified or regulated by the agriculture department.

The take-home: Look for labels from third-party organizations that audit their producers.

The claim: Grass fed

The agriculture department decided earlier this year that it would withdraw its definition of “grass fed,” a move, critics believe, that will allow more producers to make grass-fed claims that aren’t verified or accurate.

Under the previous rules, livestock could be labeled “grass fed” even if they lived in dirt-floored enclosures much of the year or were only fed forage. But, despite these already low standards, they were, at least, standards. Now? Barely any.

The take-home: As with animal-welfare-related claims, look for an audited third-party certifier.

The claim: Farm fresh and farm-to-fork

On the spectrum of abused and misleading production claims, these probably lead the way. They tap into growing consumer demand for food produced nearby by smaller farmers, but can be—and are—totally abused and exploited.

The number of farmers markets in the U.S. has shot up in recent years, growing by 180 percent between 2006 and 2014, reaching a peak of nearly 8,300. Those numbers suggest that consumers have a hearty appetite for food grown or produced by small-scale farmers operating within local or regional food systems.

But the big guys—from restaurant chains to supermarkets to giant food makers—have attempted to cash in on the farm-centric frenzy. So, buyer beware.

The take-home: If you want “farm fresh” food, know your farmers market vendors. If someone is selling you pineapple in Maine in February and calling it farm fresh, ask questions.

Georgina Gustin is a longtime food policy and farming reporter. You can follow her on Twitter.

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