Most consumers don’t know exactly what all of these various terms mean, but they probably have ideas of what they think they mean. Ideas that are often wrong. And misunderstanding terms on labels can cause us to sometimes—maybe far more often than we realize—purchase products we don’t really want.
The only way to prevent this is to get educated and super savvy as a consumer. Take the simple quiz below to test your knowledge. After you answer the questions, view the answers to get the real scoop on what various food label terms mean and what the FDA and food laws require, and get up to date on any information you may not have known before.
SAVVY SHOPPER QUIZ
Avoiding Gluten and Food Allergens
- True or False: “Gluten-free” on a label means the product is completely free of the problematic protein gluten.
- True or False: Food manufacturers are required to identify on food labels when any of the top eight food allergens are included in a product, and also when food allergens might be present in the manufacturing facility.
- True or False: The top eight food allergens that are required to be identified on food labels are wheat, soy, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and eggs.
Choosing Natural and Organic Foods
- True or False: Buying foods that are labeled “Natural” is a good way to avoid foods that contain laboratory-created genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
- True or False: Food labeled “USDA Organic” is produced without using GMOs, ionizing radiation, most conventional pesticides, and fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge.
Understanding Free-Range and Grass-Fed
- True or False: Chicken and eggs labeled “free range” come from chickens that freely forage around a farmyard.
- True or False: “Grass-fed” beef means beef from cattle raised entirely on grass.
1. False. In order for a food manufacturer to be able to use the term “gluten-free” on its label, a food must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten, a standard many gluten sensitivity experts think is too high. To choose food products with stricter standards, seek out products that have been gluten-free certified by the Celiac Sprue Association or by the Gluten Intolerance Group (which is behind the Gluten-Free Certification Organization or GFCO). These organizations have programs that certify foods that test below 5 or 10 ppm, respectively.
2. False. The Food Allergen Labeling
and Consumer Protection Act requires
food manufacturers to identify only those allergens that are in the ingredients of the product, not allergens that might also be present in the manufacturing facility and might be picked up in the food through cross-contamination. Some manufacturers voluntarily disclose the allergens that are present in their facilities. But others do not, and they are not required by law to do so. If you have severe food allergies and don’t see a facility allergen statement on the label, don’t assume the facility is allergen-
free. Rather, contact companies directly to check what allergens may be present in their facilities.
3. True. The law requires that food labels identify the food source names of these eight major allergens used to make the food. When the usual name of an ingredient (e.g., buttermilk) is a major food source name (i.e., milk), that qualifies. Otherwise, the name of the food source of a major
food allergen must appear in parentheses following the name of the ingredient.
Example: “lecithin (soy),” “flour (wheat),” and “whey (milk)”
Or the name of the allergen source must immediately appear after or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement.
Example: “Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy.”
4. False. This is one of the biggest misconceptions out there. Meat, poultry, and egg products labeled “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, but the term does not indicate how the animals were raised or, in the case of plants, how they were grown. Furthermore, in
a move that’s exceedingly frustrating to non-GMO advocates, the FDA has declined
to determine whether foods containing genetically modified ingredients may be labeled as “Natural,” “All Natural,” or “100% Natural.” The FDA also has declined to give
an official definition of “natural” to use in food labeling. However, the FDA has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. What this means to shoppers is that products labeled “natural” can—and often do—contain pesticides, GMOs, and other substances that people might normally assume aren’t present in
truly natural foods.
5. True. All those agricultural methods are excluded from organic farming. Before a
food product can be labeled “USDA Organic,”
a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following the rules. In the case
of organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, they must come from animals that are fed organic feed and are not given antibiotics or growth hormones.
6. False. Contrary to what most shoppers assume, in order to label chicken or eggs
“free range,” you only have to offer the chickens “access to the outside,” according
to the USDA. The term unfortunately doesn’t mean the chickens are freely prancing around
in the outdoors.
7. False. Grass-fed animals receive most of
their nutrients from grass, but they still can
be fattened up on grain. To get meat from animals that are fed grass their entire lives and have numerous nutritional benefits, look for meat that is labeled both grass-fed and grass-finished, or 100% grass-fed. To get beef from cattle raised on organic grass, look for meat that is labeled organic and 100% grass-fed.
Melissa Diane Smith is a nationally known writer and holistic nutritionist who counsels clients across the country and specializes in using food as medicine for a wide variety of conditions. She is the author of Going Against the Grain and Gluten Free Throughout the Year, coauthor of Syndrome X, and a non-GMO educator and speaker. To learn more about her books, long-distance consultations, nutrition coaching programs, or speaking, visit her websites melissadianesmith.com and againstthegrainnutrition.com.