What Do Labels on the Front of Food Packaging Really Mean?

If only we lived and shopped in a world where food labels told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But while consumers rely on labels to make wise nutritional choices, Food Labels What They Meanfood processors use labels to sell their products. Sometimes these two functions of a label are in conflict. Labels can be misleading, especially if you don’t learn to read between the lines and examine the fine print. Knowing what words on the label really mean is a big step toward making nutritious choices at the supermarket. Familiarize yourself with these 9 labels so you can see the truth beyond the marketing.

1. “Pure”

Consider the word “pure.” Who doesn’t want to eat food that’s “pure?” You certainly wouldn’t want to put contaminated food in your body. Here’s the trouble: the word “pure” has no regulated, agreed upon meaning in food labeling. Also, it tells you nothing about what’s in the package that perhaps should not be there…

2. “Natural”

Unfortunately, “natural” is probably the least trustworthy of all the label terms. While the term “natural” sounds appealing, it says very little about the nutritional quality of food, or even its safety. In reality, “natural” is empty of nutritional meaning. Consumers might believe “natural” means the food is pretty much as Mother Nature grew it, but this is seldom the case.  Even then, “natural” is not the same as “nutritious,” or even “good for you.” For example, the fat marbling in a New York Strip steak is “natural,” but it’s not good for your arteries.

3. “Made From”

This phrase simply means the food you are purchasing started with this product. For example, the claim “made from 100% corn oil” may be technically correct, but it’s misleading. Consumers may (understandably) believe they are consuming 100% corn oil. They read that and imagine fields of corn under a clear blue Iowa sky…but a lot can happen to that corn oil before it gets to the grocery store. What the label really means is the processor started with 100% corn oil but along the way may have diluted it or hydrogenated it, changing it into a fat that will clog your arteries, not one that flows free and golden. Another common label lie is “Made from Natural…” Again, this simply means the manufacturer started with a natural source. By the time the natural food is processed, it may be anything but natural.

4. “Made With”

“Made With” can be very misleading. “Made with real fruit” is a good example. The law does not require the label to specify how much fruit. This boast is particularly prevalent  in snacks for children, which may contain a grape or two in a snack that is otherwise mostly sugar. “Made with whole grains” is another little white [label] lie. You as the consumer are led to believe  it is a whole grain product, but the label is not required to state how much whole grain is in the product. Its main ingredient could still be refined flour—with only a small amount of whole wheat added. In that case, the food won’t contain all the fiber and other nutrients associated with whole grains.

5. “Fat-Free”

Understand the real meaning of “fat-free” on a label. For example, suppose a food is labeled “95% Fat Free.” This just means that 5% of the total weight of the food is fat. While this may not seem like that much, keep in mind 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, compared to 4 calories in a gram of protein or carbohydrates. 5 grams of fat in 100 grams (approximately 3.5 oz) of ground or dark-meat turkey without the skin actually represents 25% of the calories in that serving.

6. “Enriched”

This is often a tip-off that something good was taken out of the food, requiring another process to out some of that good stuff back in. Enriched flour and enriched white bread are not as nourishing as their whole wheat counterparts.

7. “Smoked”

Legally, this term describes the flavor of the food, not how it was made. As the consumer, you imagine the food being smoked in a backyard BBQ, or in an old-fashioned smokehouse. In fact, the food could have been artificially or chemically smoked and/or could just contain smoked flavoring.

8. Fruit “Drinks”

Look at the ingredients to see what’s actually in there. “Drink” in the name of a product tells you that this is not 100% juice. It may, in fact, be mostly sugar and water, with some added Vitamin C. This allows the manufacturer to say an orange drink is “high in Vitamin C,” even if it’s a long way from being real orange juice.

9. Organic

And, finally, we’ve saved the most commonly confusing for last. The United States Department of Agriculture regulates the use of the certified organic label. These days, you see foods labeled as organic all over the grocery store. Anything that does not meet the USDA requirements is not permitted to wear that special seal. But what is an organic label supposed to mean? Foods that are labeled as 100% certified organic are foods and ingredients that were grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, in soil free of these substances. But not all “organic” labels are equal:

  • USDA Certified 100% Organic: If your product has a USDA organic seal and says it is 100% organic, this product contains 100% USDA certified organic ingredients, has zero non-organic ingredients in the product, and any processing aids used during product production were 100% USDA certified organic.
  • USDA Organic: a product labeled as organic contains at least 95% organic ingredients. These products are also allowed to have the USDA organic seal.
  • Sometimes a product has the label “Made with organic ingredients.” According to the USDA, a product with this label must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, but watch out for that other 30%.

There are plenty of other terms to be skeptical about too. Experienced label readers look right past the banners and big type on the front and look instead for the facts in small print on the back. Even then, they remain skeptical. The key is to remember that you and your food manufacturer don’t always have the same interests in mind, so be smart and cautious to ensure you are filling your fridge and pantry with the best, most nutritious foods possible.