There are a lot of hot words and phrases in food marketing.
No sugar added. Gluten Free. Vegan. No artificial sweeteners. All Natural. Organic. Low fat.
But, a lot of people really don’t know what they mean. There’s a grey area in food marketing where terms aren’t defined, nor are they regulated. All Natural is the best example of this. What does “all natural” mean? To me, it should mean grown from the earth with no added ingredients and not genetically modified.
Organic: Made/grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizer. Organic foods also cannot be genetically modified. BUT, “Organic” actually only means made with 95% organic material. This applies to “organic” crackers, cereal, etc. An “organic” apple is 100% organic. Organic produce will start with a 9. For example, bananas are 4011 and organic bananas are 94011. These items may include the USDA organic seal.
100% Organic: This is definitely not genetically modified. The food product only has organic ingredients, as opposed to an “organic” food that has 95% organic ingredients. These items may contain the USDA seal.
Made with Organic Ingredients: Not genetically modified. Must be at least 70% organic ingredients (but less than 95% or it would be “organic”), and up to 30% can be conventional ingredients. It should be noted that products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list the organic ingredients, but may not use the term “made with organic ingredients.” These items cannot display the USDA seal. Here’s a good resource from the USDA that explains organic labeling.
All Natural or 100% Natural: This has NO MEANING. The USDA (regulates meat, poultry and eggs) does not define this term. The FDA does not define this term. There is no regulation over the use of this term by food companies. Essentially, you might as well slap it on all foods.
Gluten Free: As of August 2013, all foods labeled “gluten free” must meet FDA guidelines. This includes being under 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Only foods that are naturally gluten free or do not contain a gluten containing ingredient may be labeled gluten free. This does make it safer for consumers who must eat gluten free.
Natural Sweetener: This often includes things like Stevia products. I personally wouldn’t put that in my “natural” category, but again natural isn’t a term defined by the USDA or FDA. Mayo Clinic has a great chart showing the different types of sweeteners and categories of sweeteners.
Artifical Sweetener: These are the ones you typically think of. Apsartame, Saccharin, Sucralose (Sweet’N Low, Equal, etc.)
Non-GMO: These items are not genetically modified. Genetic modification uses biotechnology to change the genes of a plant. Call me crazy, but this reminds me of stem cell research. And when you think farmer, you tend to think conservative old man (just me?), so they’re OK with playing God with food, but not with things that could cure cancer. Riddle me that. I don’t like GMO, if you hadn’t noticed. If you want to avoid GMO foods, but non-GMO food or organics. Organic foods cannot be genetically modified!
Low Sodium: To be labeled low sodium, a food must have less than 5% of the Daily Value (DV) of sodium. The DV for sodium is no more than 2400 mg (meaning eat no more than 2400 mg of sodium a day). So, to be considered a low sodium food, it must be less than 120 mg of sodium per serving. However, pay attention to what is considered a serving. It might be a lot less of something than you think.
Low Fat: 3 grams or less of fat per serving.
Here’s some information from the USDA on labeling
Here’s a great article from eatright.org, the dietetic association’s website, on some other terms on labels such as low cholesterol, high fiber and fat free (which doesn’t always mean totally free of fat).
Here’s another great resource from cancer.org that explains food terms like free, low, high in, lean, light, etc.
Side note: Genetic modification is a post for another day. A large GMO seed provider, which has threatened to sue states that try to label GMOs on food, has a lot of ads in magazines geared toward the food shopper of the house that basically claim there won’t be enough food by 2050, but organic crops (non-GMO) actually have a better yield long term. OMG GMO is a great documentary that discusses GMOs and sustainability, as well as food supply in terms of longevity. I have a hard time trusting that GMO foods, which have been around for less than 30 years, are just safe with no long term consequences.