How can I make sense of food marketing terms?
Food marketing terms are one tool to help you make healthy choices. But some of them are just that – marketing. They can be terms that don't signal any true health benefit. Our expert unpacks the truth behind some common "healthy" labels.
Do you ever find yourself staring at the grocery store shelves wondering, ‘What does this all mean?’
In the drive to stand out and fit in with dietary trends, the number of food buzz words used on packages has exploded.
Some have fixed definitions, which means the product must meet standards set by the Food and Drug Administration or the US Department of Agriculture, others do not. And then there are some that fall into a gray area, where the official definition doesn’t tell you all you need to know.
So what does it all mean? We talked to MD Anderson Employee Wellness Dietitian Lindsey Wohlford to find out what’s truly helpful, and what's just marketing.
Food marketing terms
Free-range or free-roaming
This USDA certification means that the animals, usually chickens, have been allowed access to the outside. But the term can be misleading because there are no requirements on the size or quality of the outside space, or the amount of time the chickens can be outside. You could still have many chickens in a small indoor space with a door to a tiny outdoor space that many can’t reach.
You may see these terms listed on chicken and eggs as well as beef and dairy products like milk. These terms do not have a legal definition from the USDA or FDA, but some independent organizations do provide a certification.
Grass-fed generally refers to animals who have eaten only grass from the time they were weaned from their mother. They have not been fed corn, grain or other feed. Pasture-raised generally means that they are raised in a pasture and not indoors, but they may have been fed grain during some seasons.
Find the grass-fed or pasture-raised certifying organization named on the product and look it up to find out their requirements. Then check to see who is verifying the claims.
The best way to check how animals are being treated is to talk to farmers. You can often meet the people who are growing and raising your food by shopping at your local farmer’s markets.
Hormones are not allowed in pork or chicken. But the FDA has approved the use of hormones in beef cattle and sheep. Hormones are used to make animals grow faster and bigger. Labels that say 'no hormones' mean that the producer has proven the animal did not receive hormones.
There is not enough research to prove that these hormones are dangerous to humans.
“We really don’t know the full impact, because it is hard to track,” says Wohlford.
The words ‘no antibiotics added’ can be used on labels where the producer has shown that animals were raised without antibiotics. Using these drugs in animals can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can cause problems for livestock and humans.
The Centers for Disease Control says that 400,000 Americans get sick each year with two common antibiotic-resistant infections spread through food.
There is no formal definition of the term ‘natural’ but the FDA considers it to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to the food. The term does not cover food production methods like the use of pesticides.
This definition of ‘natural’ allows producers to add in ingredients like salt, which comes from a natural source. Check the ingredients list on the nutrition label.
Foods that carry the USDA organic seal are produced without any synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones or artificial preservatives, flavors or colors. Organic foods also do not contain any GMOs (genetically modified ingredients). Farms and food producers must be inspected by the USDA to confirm their organic status.
There are three levels for organic status:
- 100% organic: The product is completely organic or made of only organic ingredients.
- Organic: At least 95% of the ingredients are organic.
- Made with organic ingredients: At least 70% organic ingredients. These products do not qualify for a USDA organic seal.
No added sugar
This term does have a definition, but it can be misleading. If a label says no sugar has been added, it means just that: No extra sugar has been added. But it does not mean there is no sugar or even that the product is low in sugar.
Fruit juices often have very high amounts of sugar simply from the fruit. That can be just as bad as a beverage with added sugar, because the fiber from the fruit’s skin and pulp has been removed. Always check the nutrition label to be sure of the amount of sugar.
This means the food does not contain any ingredients that have been changed genetically from their original form. There is no USDA or FDA certification for this, but producers can voluntarily label their foods with terms like "not genetically engineered," "not bioengineered" or "not genetically modified."
There are independent groups that provide certification. If you see a stamp or seal, look up the organization to check their standards and how producers are monitored.
Made with real fruit
This is not a certified term and does not require any specific amount of fruit. Products may contain only a small amount. Check the ingredient list and see where fruit is placed. If it’s near the end, then there’s likely not much fruit in it.
This term only means that the product contains some whole wheat. Producers may also have used refined white flour, perhaps in larger amounts. Make sure the label says 100% whole wheat and check the ingredient list.
How to know what’s in your food
Reading the nutrition label and ingredient list on your food is more important than any of these terms. Looking in detail at both will give you the truth about what you are eating.
Focusing on whole foods not processed foods often helps you avoid some misleading terms altogether.
“What we do know is that processed foods are the problem,” says Wohlford.
“Processed foods are not only lower in nutrients like antioxidants and phytochemicals. They also tend to be higher in preservatives, sodium, sugar and all the things we know contribute to chronic illnesses and inflammation.”
The best way to know what’s in your food is to read the label. It will tell you key information that marketing-based terms leave out, like how much sugar is included or how much salt.