A Guide to Understanding Food Labels

food labels

Consumers will often rely on food labels to navigate their local grocery stores and make informed purchasing decisions. However, product labels can be very confusing; this is due, at least in part, to oft-used and ill-defined phrases that include Organic, Natural, and Free-range, among others. Here are the definitions provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of what each food label means.


USDA Definition: “As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.”

What It Really Means: While the definition does clarify that a “Natural” product must not contain any artificial ingredients, it also fails to clarify what “minimally processed” means. In essence, a processed product may still be classified as “natural.” This is a very vague term that many food products will put on their product to attract consumers. Animal welfare is not considered when using this phrase.


USDA Definition: “A food or other agricultural product that has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

What It Really Means: Even though there are standards for organic products, it can get very tricky with this term. Terms such as “100% organic”, “organic”, and “made with organic ingredients” complicates matters further.


USDA Definition: “This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.”

What It Really Means: This means that free-range is only regulated for poultry, which would exclude cows and pigs. The term does not specify any requirements for either the quality of the outdoor space provided the chickens or the quantity of time they can spend outside. As long as the birds have some access to the outdoors, the product can be labeled free-range.


USDA Definition: This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.

What It Really Means: This means that chickens were not locked in cages and were allowed to walk freely inside a locked building. The definition makes no mention of the amount and quality of space provided. Techniques such as beak cutting and molting are permitted.


USDA Definition: Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic.

What It Really Means: Grass-fed animal products are attractive to consumers because they tend to be more lean than their grain-fed counterparts. This is a popular term for cows and lambs. To be labeled grass-fed, the animals must only eat grass and other greens in their lifetime. However, they are only required to roam outside during the growing season, which could mean six months in some states. Additionally, the USDA does not clearly define the in-door conditions in which the animals live; they simply define what the animal may be fed.


USDA Definition: Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products.

What It Really Means: The USDA does not regulate what products have this label on them, so consumers need to be aware and look at the nutrition label and do their own research before buying.


USDA Definition: Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.

What It Really Means: Do not trust anything labeled “humane” to actually be humanely treated. Since there is no standard definition, you must do your own research before trusting different brands. “Humane” is a vague term that seems like an attractive ruse.

No Added Hormones

USDA Definition: A similar claim includes “Raised without Hormones.” Federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goat.

What It Really Means: The FDA gives very clear explanations of what this phrase means: “Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.””

“The term “no hormones administered” may be approved for use on the label of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals.”

Fat Free

FDA Definition: Less than 0.5 g per labeled serving.

What It Really Means: Products are allowed to say they have zero fat in their nutritional labels if they meet this requirement. However, this rule is also permitted for trans fat which raises the level of LDL (the bad cholesterol), which increases risk of heart disease.

No Sugar Added

FDA Definition: “No Added Sugars” and “Without Added Sugars” are allowed if no sugar or sugar containing ingredient is added during processing.

What It Really Means: While diabetics may eat products with this label, it does not mean zero sugar. Many people have confused this label for “sugar free”. Products that naturally contain sugar such as milk can be labeled “no sugar added”.

100% Juice

FDA Definition: If the beverage contains fruit or vegetable juice, the percentage shall be declared by the words “Contains _ percent (or %) ___ juice” or “_ percent (or %) juice,” or a similar phrase, with the first blank filled in with the percentage expressed as a whole number not greater than the actual percentage of the juice and the second blank (if used) filled in with the name of the particular fruit or vegetable.

What It Really Means: “100% Juice” means all of your juice is from fruits or vegetables, but not necessarily the certain fruits or vegetables that you think you’re drinking. Take the Supreme Court case of POM Wonderful LLC vs. Coca-Cola Co., for example. Coca-Cola lost for their misleading food label of their Pomegranate Blueberry juice, which only contained 0.3% pomegranate juice and 0.2% blueberry juice while the rest were cheaper juices such as apple and grape juice. Even though Coco-Cola Co. was legal under the FDA rule, it broke the Lanham Act, “which prohibits false and misleading statements about a product and can be invoked only by companies, not consumers.”

Sugar Free

FDA Definition: Food products that contains “less than 0.5 g of sugars… per labeled servings” and “low in calories”.

What It Really Means: Essentially, this can allow certain products to change their labeled serving size so that the sugar level can be lower than 0.5 g of sugars per serving, allowing them to be labeled “sugar free”. The FDA only recognizes sugars as a “one and two unit” sugars such as high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, honey, brown sugar, and table sugar. The FDA does not recognize polyols, which contains carbohydrates and calories, and sugar substitutes, such as saccharin and aspartame, as sugars.

Sodium Free

FDA Definition: Less than 5 mg per labeled serving.

What It Really Means: This is a more straight-forward definition, but just remember to count your servings or you will end up eating more sodium than you expected.

The Takeaway

While these are just a few of the food labels out there, there are many more misleading food labels that people should be aware of. If you’re not sure about certain products, always do your research. Because of the FDA’s definitions for some food labels, companies will find loopholes and make claims that confuse consumers.