What Words Like ‘Organic,’ ‘Natural,’ ‘GMO-Free’ and ‘Gluten-Free’ Really Mean

By Mike Pomranz |

© Norma Jean Gargasz / Alamy

We’re so much healthier than we used to be! With a rise in the demand to know what it is in your food and where it comes from, companies are making the effort to label their products with stamps like ‘gluten-free’ and ‘organic’.  But can we really trust that some printed words on a package really mean anything?

CNN recently broke down a whole slew of different food labels, trying to get to the bottom of what they mean or don’t mean.  To make your busy lives easier, we’ve distilled this info down to a quick overview so you know which words to trust and which to be skeptical of.

GMO-free = Currently left up to manufacturer.  Whether or not a food contains GMOs is a relatively cut and dry distinction.  However, as of right now, labeling is still left up to the individual companies.  But to ease the minds of skeptical types, some states, like Vermont, are beginning to pass laws on the state level (Vermont’s law kicks in in 2016), and the USDA recently announced they’re launching a “USDA Product Verified” label nationwide.

Natural = Vaguely defined and loosely enforced by FDA.  The FDA openly admits, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives.”  But then the agency gives us a big “but,” stating, “However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”  The flip side of that statement is that occasionally the FDA will “object” to the use of the term, and as CNN points out, the FDA has taken brands to task over misuse of the word in the past, so it’s not completely worthless.

Organic = Has multiple specific definitions that don’t always mean 100% organic.  To be certified as “organic,” meat and produce have to be raised or grown according to specific USDA guidelines.  But from there, different “organic” labels can take on different meanings.  “USDA organic,” for instance, means a product is made from 95% organic content.  But products can say “made with organic” ingredients if just more than 70% of the ingredients are organic.

Gluten-free = Regulated by the FDA.  Though gluten-free diets are trendy, for people actually suffering from Celiac disease, mislabeled food can be a serious health concern.  So thankfully, the FDA actually regulates products labeled “gluten-free” to make sure they are actually free of everybody’s new whipping boy, gluten.

Whole grain = Must be accurate, but doesn’t reflect amounts.  If you’re in the mood for some light reading, the FDA has a seven page document on industry guidance for “Whole Grain Label Statements.”  Though labeling of “whole grains” have to be accurate, the amount of whole grains in a product can vary.  Check the ingredients and nutrition info, especially fiber, to get a better idea of how much of these ingredients you are getting.

Trans fat = Meaningful in most cases.  The FDA requires all trans fats to be listed on the nutrition label.  The only caveat here is that anything less than a half a gram of trans fat per serving can be rounded down to zero.

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