Here’s some help with how to be an informed reader of health claims on food labels.
There are so many health claims on food labels that it is often hard to know what to believe. And many claims cannot be trusted. Here’s some help in understanding these labels, so you can make the choices based on what is important to you.
Here is a guide to some common claims food labels make, and what they mean:
USDA certified organic
By federal law, certified organic foods must meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This includes the way crops are farmed, how animals are raised, how foods are processed, and which types of ingredients can be used in the product. This applies even if the product only claims “organic” on the label, even without the USDA Organic seal. Strong standards backed by the federal government, as well as on-site inspections, ensure that this claim is accurate and you can be confident that food bearing this label is organic.
GMO is short for genetically modified organisms, which are created by deliberately changing the genetic makeup of a plant, animal or other organism in a laboratory. This includes crops from engineered seeds or meat from genetically modified animals. Unfortunately, a label claim of Non-GMO isn’t always reliable. There are no consistent, clear, enforceable rules for making this claim on a food label, and there is no consistency in how the claim is verified. But you can be sure if you see the Non-GMO Project seal of assurance that the food contains no or minimal (less than 0.9 percent) genetically modified organisms. Manufacturers must work with independent certification companies to verify that the product meets the Non-GMO Project’s standards to include this seal.
The claim “all-natural” implies that a food is healthy, does not contain GMOs or pesticides, or that it does not contain any artificial ingredients. But be wary of this claim on food items. This term is not regulated by any government agency and there are no specific criteria mandating what “all natural” means. Manufacturers can make this claim on any food item.
Animals raised for meat, poultry, dairy or eggs are often given antibiotics for disease prevention, which contributes to the public health problem of antibiotic resistance. Choosing to eat foods with no antibiotics is a good idea. Unfortunately, the claim “no antibiotics” cannot be depended upon because this claim is not well verified. Also, it does not address other drugs, such as hormones, that are commonly given to animals. However, the claim can be trusted when accompanied by the USDA Organic seal on the food packaging. As mentioned above, this seal means that no antibiotics were used to produce this food, and the seal is certified by federal law.
Although the term “cage-free” is regulated by the USDA, it only means that the hens producing the eggs don’t live in cages. The term does not specify how much space they have, and they often have very cramped, inhumane living conditions. If the cage-free term is accompanied by the Certified Humane seal, however, that means the hens were not caged. The Certified Humane seal also means that the farmer had to provide a minimum amount of indoor space for livestock, routine antibiotics are prohibited for these animals, and regular on-farm inspections are done.
Stacey Kendrick, MS, is a health educator with more than 20 years of experience in wellness and population health. She is a mother to two adult daughters. In her free time, she teaches healthy cooking classes, runs, gardens and enjoys backyard bonfires.