Going to the grocery store can be an overwhelming experience, especially when it seems like new labels are appearing on products all the time. It is nearly impossible for a consumer to keep up with meanings of food labels. Wading through the Internet for an accurate answer is often a daunting task that quickly results in a headache and confusion. The Ultimate Guide to Food Label’s goal is to take the frustration out of deciphering food labels by presenting information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in an understandable format.

Quick Guide to Common Food Labels

Organic: If only it were just that simple! There are multiple organic labels, and they all have a different meaning. Key information from the USDA is highlighted below, but check out this link for more information!

  •  100% Organic: All ingredients must be certified organic, any processing aids must be organic, and product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel. These products may include the USDA organic seal and/or 100% organic claim.
  • 9-8-16organic-food-labelsOrganic: All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, except those specified on the National List. Non-organic ingredients from the National List can only make up 5% of the non-organic content, excluding salt and water. Product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel. These products may include USDA organic seal and/or organic claim and organic ingredients must be identified.
  • Made with Organic: 70% of the product must be made with certified organic ingredients. Remaining agricultural products are not required to be organically produced, but they cannot be produced using methods that have not been approved. As mentioned above, non-agricultural products must be allowed on the National List. The certifying agent must be named on the information panel of the product label. These products may state “made with organic (insert up to three ingredients),” but they cannot include the USDA organic seal, represent the final product as organic or state “made with organic ingredients.” The organic ingredients must be identified with an asterisk or other mark.

Natural: According the USDA, for food to be labeled as natural it cannot contain artificial ingredients or preservatives. The ingredients can only be minimally processed. Foods labeled as natural can contain antibiotics and growth hormones. An application must be submitted for foods labeled, as natural, however no inspections occur and producers do not have to be certified.

Free Range/Cage Free: Applications and certification are not required for products to be labeled as Free Range. However, producers must be able to “demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” More meat and poultry labeling terms are defined by the USDA here.

Grass Fed: The USDA no longer defines this term. However, grass-fed animals are typically raised in pastures or on ranges where they are allowed to graze, instead of in feedlots. Read more about the USDA’s recent decision to get rid of their grass-fed definition here.

9-8-16glutenGluten Free: The FDA has this to say about products labeled as gluten-free:  “Gluten-free” is a voluntary claim that manufacturers may elect to use in the labeling of their foods. However, manufacturers that label their foods “gluten-free” are accountable for using the claim in a truthful and non-misleading manner and for complying with all requirements established by the regulation and enforced by FDA. Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in wheat, rye, and barley.  Read more about gluten and the labeling of gluten-free products here.

Antibiotic Free: According to the USDA, this term may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if “sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.” All chickens are antibiotic free because no antibiotic residue is present due to withdrawal periods and other closely monitored requirements.

No Hormones Added:

  • 9-8-16no-hormones-addedPork and Poultry: No artificial or added hormones are used in any poultry or hogs in the United States because of regulations from the FDA prohibiting such actions. According to the USDA, “The claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
  • Beef:  “No hormones administered” may be approved for use on the labeling of beef products if “sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals.”

Other Resources

For comprehensive information on everything from additives in meat and poultry products to allergies and food safety, check out the USDA’s Food Labeling Fact Sheets.

Ever wonder what the difference between health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure/function claims are? Check out the FDA’s in depth explanation here.

We’ve all seen nutrition labels on countless products, and while it is great to have access to the numbers, they are relatively useless without an understanding of what those numbers and percentages actually mean. The FDA breaks down nutrition labels here.

christy_allenChristy Allen
University of Illinois

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