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  • Maddy Belaustegui


Health food companies spend millions in marketing each year. As a result, food labels have become increasingly difficult to understand. 100% organic, pasture-fed, free-range, low fat, non GMO, gluten free, low glycemic index and so many other phrases are slapped on the sides of boxes in the grocery aisle. At the end of the day, it is important that you understand your individual nutrient needs and now how to navigate these confusing food labels. Do not assume that just because a label says "organic" for example, that it automatically qualifies as a low calorie food and you can have as much as you want. It can be tough to be a discerning customer, but it's important to understand what this language means. Many of these labels actually have much more to do with how the food is produced than what its nutrient quality is. This is primarily of concern if you have a chronic disease or health condition that requires you to monitor your intake of specific nutrients.

Here is a guide to help you start navigating the aisles:

  • Natural: currently no formal definition exists by the FDA or USDA. The FDA has considered the term "natural" to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to a food. USDA allows the use of the term "natural" to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients or added color.

  • USDA certified organic: As defined by the USDA, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods are produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

  • Non-GMO: A genetically modified organism is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This includes anything from a modifying a crop to be resistant to a specific insect or golden rice, which has been modified to contain beta-carotene (Vitamin A).

  • Gluten-free: per the FDA, food either does not contain gluten or has been processed to remove it. Contains < 20 ppm of gluten (barley, wheat, rye or any crossbreed of these grains), which is particularly important for those with Celiac disease.

  • Processed: Per the USDA, "processed" refers to food that has undergone a "change of character." An examples includes edamame (unprocessed) vs. tofu (processed). So just because a food is processed does not mean it cannot be nutritious.

  • Free-range and cage-free: refer to the type of housing provided to the chickens who laid the eggs. Per the USDA, free-range eggs come from birds that are allowed to roam freely both indoors and outdoors during the egg-laying cycle. Cage-free eggs are produced by hens who also roam freely but these birds typically live in chicken houses. The houses allow the birds space to move both vertically and horizontally.

As you can see, none of these terms have anything to do with the fat, sugar, or calorie content of food. There may be personal reasons you choose to eat organic, for example, which is completely fine. But know the nutritional content of what you eat; don't just make assumptions based on labels!


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