What Do "Healthy" Food Labels Really Mean?
Today's grocery store products look more like a NASCAR racecar than a box of food. Across many of the options (at least the healthier ones), you'll find logos that indicate the food is everything from organic to made in the U.S.A.
All of those logos may look super official, but you may be surprised to know some of them are mostly self-appointed terms. Not every logo and label is regulated by an agency responsible for making sure the term is correctly applied. If the USDA or FDA takes exception to the use of the logo, some companies can get into trouble for their "misleading" claims. For example, earlier this year, the FDA sent KIND a letter stating their snack bars made packaging claims their products did not actually fulfill. Specifically, they flagged their use of the word "healthy." The FDA said in their letter to KIND that their bar's nutrition facts did not meet the standard for "healthy," so the company should stop using it.
Similarly, back in the spring, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) stumbled into trouble when they allowed the “Kids Eat Right” logo on its first consumer food product, Kraft Singles. Nutritionists and dietitians were, rightfully, upset. AND later agreed to revoke the logo partnership. Still, the implied message from AND was that the highly processed cheese product was healthy for kids. For some consumers, the use of that logo could have been very confusing.
Those two anecdotes are prime examples why understanding labeling (and getting smarter, easier-to-understand labeling) is so important. If you need to sort the meaning of food labels, this guide may help.
Organic - If you look closely at the green and white organic logo, you'll see the letters USDA. The USDA determines who can and cannot use the organic label on their product. Organic is so important to so many manufacturers right now that they're willing and eager to seek out the logo so they can proudly display it. However, it's not an inexpensive venture. Some companies, especially smaller ones, can't afford to foot the bill for the organic certification process. Their foods may be organic, but they can't call them that officially because it is regulated.Bottom line: If the food says it's organic, the USDA confirms that it is.
"Made With" Organic - If a product is made with at least 70% certified organic ingredients, it can label itself "Made With" organic products, according to the USDA. Food manufacturers have to label which ingredients actually are organic ("organic whole-wheat flour, organic flax seed," etc.).Bottom line: Some of the ingredients are certified organic. Some of them are conventional.
Natural - Any food that isn't straight from the Earth is not really natural. It's likely been processed in some form or fashion, so the FDA does not have any concrete rules for using the term "natural" on food products. Currently, they allow companies to use that word if their food "does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances." If a company uses it when they shouldn't, it's up to the FDA to file a complaint and stop the company. That could take some time.Bottom line: It's almost entirely unregulated, which means it doesn't really indicate anything about your food.
Non-GMO - Currently, no governmental agency regulates the use of a non-GMO label on food, and a true GMO-free claim cannot be legally made because of testing limitations. (We don't have an excellent way to determine if, in fact, a food really is GMO-free.) Still, the private sector has come up with a next-best solution. One organization, the Non-GMO Project, issues a verification when products successfully meet their requirements for a GMO-avoidance process. They state on their website that they cannot confirm all of the foods that bear their logo are in fact 100% GMO-free, but their standards for verification are stringent and transparent. Other third-party organizations offer non-GMO certifications, too.Bottom line: Foods cannot be certified 100% GMO-free. Your best bet is to look for the logo from the Non-GMO Project. It's not perfect, but it's better than most.
Gluten-Free - In August 2013, the FDA finally issued regulations for the label "gluten-free." For people with an allergy to gluten and those with Celiac disease, having a reliable label was of utmost importance. Today, the label can be used on any product that meets the FDA's gluten-free label guidelines. Unfortunately, the use of this label is not approved by the FDA before the product hits the shelves. Food manufacturers are charged with meeting all the requirements and using the label truthfully. Some manufacturers use a third-party gluten-free certification logo. However, that is not endorsed by the FDA.Bottom line: The FDA enforces the use of the label gluten-free, but they trust manufacturers to use it truthfully. Companies do not have to complete any certification program to use the label on their products.
Healthy - In order to use the term "healthy" on its packaging, a food manufacturer has to determine that their food's nutritional details meet the requirements established by the FDA. However, as with the term "gluten-free," the FDA trusts that food manufacturers use the word "healthy" honestly. If they don't or if they believe the requirements are not truly met, the FDA can demand the company stop using the word in its packaging, advertising, and marketing. (This was the case with KIND bars.)Bottom line: The term is enforced by the FDA, but food manufacturers use their own judgment to decide if their product meets the requirements.
What other packaging terms confuse you? Let us know, and we'll get some answers to your product-labeling confusion.