The Truth Behind the Most Common 'Healthy' Food Labels

Learn what those food labels really mean to make the best choices for your health and diet.

November 28, 2016
reading food label

Adapted from Eat Clean Stay Lean: The Diet

Whole foods are real, simple, and straightforward—usually! Sometimes, even things as basic as a carton of eggs, a jug of milk, or a package of chicken breasts can have an awful lot of stuff on the label.

More: 6 Tricks to Help You Love Healthy Foods

And while the terms can be a bit confusing, they're worth paying attention to if you're committed to eating clean. Here are a few biggies to get familiar with.

Organic
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Organic

For produce, this means that the plants weren't grown from genetically modified seeds; were not grown with pesticides, herbicides, or sewage sludge; and were not irradiated. For meats and poultry, this means that the animals were fed organic feed containing no animal by-products, were not given antibiotics or hormones, and had some (but not necessarily much) access to the outdoors. For a packaged food to be labeled organic, it must be made up of at least 95 percent organic ingredients; a label stating "made with organic ingredients" means the product must be made up of at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

More: Where Eating Organic Matters Most

cage-free eggs
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Cage-free

For eggs, "cage-free" means that the hens were not confined to cages—but they didn't necessarily have access to an outdoor space. Unless they're organic, cage-free hens can still be fed grains made from genetically modified crops that have been heavily treated with chemical pesticides, which can then be passed on to you. Since there's no mandatory third-party auditing for the term "cage-free," look for a third-party verification seal like "Certified Humane" or "Animal Welfare Approved."

Free-range eggs
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Free-range

Found on both poultry and egg packaging, free-range means that hens have some access to the outdoors. Like cage-free hens, free-range hens that aren't certified organic can still be given feed that contains antibiotics and pesticides. Since there's no mandatory third-party auditing for the term, look for a third-party verification seal like "Certified Humane" or "Animal Welfare Approved."

More: Are Your Organic Eggs Legit?

Pasture-raised eggs
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Pasture-raised

This term can apply to meat, poultry, and eggs. Pasture-raised animals spend some time on grassland, where they're able to eat a more natural diet of grass and bugs. Because of this, their meat and milk often have a richer flavor and higher levels of nutrients, such as omega-3s.

But since there's no mandatory third-party auditing, it can be tough to tell exactly how much time an animal actually spent on the pasture. For that reason, it's best to buy pastured meats and eggs with a third-party verification seal like "Certified Humane" or "Animal Welfare Approved." Or buy from a local producer who can offer details on how his animals are raised.

Grass-fed beef
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Grass-fed

Due to recent changes to labeling standards, the USDA grass-fed label only means that beef, bison, lamb, goats, and dairy cattle were fed grass at some point in their lives. The label doesn't stop producers from feeding animals grain, giving them antibiotics or hormones, or keeping them in confined spaces. For true grass-fed products, look for those certified by the American Grassfed Association, or buy from a local producer who can offer details on how his animals are raised. 

More: Guide to Buying Grass-Fed Beef

natural foods
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Natural

"Natural" foods are those made without artificial flavors, colors, or other synthetic ingredients. But these foods can still contain high-fructose corn syrup, and many also contain genetically modified ingredients. In short, natural is a vague term, so don't rely on it exclusively when you're looking for clean products. Inspect the ingredient list, instead.

hormones meat
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No hormones

When you see this label on meat or dairy products, it means that hormones weren't given to the animals involved. The USDA already prohibits the use of hormones in poultry and pork, so you don't need to seek out this label for those products. 

More: 9 Appalling Facts About Meat

questionable meat
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No antibiotics

This term can be found on meat or dairy items, and it means that no antibiotics were given to the animals involved. That's a good thing, since antibiotic use in animals is linked to drug resistance, as well as obesity. But if you're going to pay more for antibiotic-free products, you might as well buy organic ones.

chicken on range
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Certified humane

This means that the animals had access to enough space to allow them freedom to move, which is good for your conscience. But it also means that the animals weren't treated with artificial growth hormones or antibiotics—which is good for your health. 

More: 10 Disturbing Facts About Pork

Heart healthy
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Heart healthy

The American Heart Association's Heart-Check program's standard certification requires that a product have less than 6.5 grams of total fat, 1 gram or less of saturated fat (or less than 15 percent of total calories), less than 0.5 gram of trans fats, and 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol per serving. It also requires that a food contain less than a certain amount of sodium, depending on the food category.

The food must contain 10 percent or more of the daily value of one of six beneficial nutrients (vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, or dietary fiber). While nuts are higher in fat than many foods (such as fruits and vegetables), they can also get the Heart-Check mark, thanks to the enormous amount of evidence backing their benefits for heart health. Still, because of the label's emphasis on certifying lower-fat foods—even as mounting research shows that quality fats are good for —take the label with a grain of salt and read the ingredients list and nutrition panel before you make a decision.

fiber
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High-fiber

High-fiber foods must contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, according to the Whole Grains Council. Whole grains typically contain between 0.5 and 3 grams of fiber per serving, so you'll usually see the "high-fiber" label on processed foods that contain added fiber in the form of resistant starch, inulin, or cellulose. If you're already eating a whole foods diet that contains plenty of vegetables and grains, you don't need to bother looking for this label.

Raw
raw juices
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Raw

This label typically shows up on juices, fermented drinks and vegetables, dairy, and some snack foods—and it means that the product was not cooked or heated to a temperature that destroys certain beneficial nutrients and enzymes.

More: Top 5 Foods to Heal Digestion

In the case of things like kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi, it means that the product has retained its good bacteria and still offers probiotic benefits. The jury's still out for juices, since pasteurized juice still retains many vitamins and minerals. When it comes to raw milk, many experts believe the benefits may not outweigh the risks of food-borne illnesses. For packaged snack foods, such as kale chips, look for more specific quality indicators in addition to raw, such as organic or non-GMO.

Non-GMO
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Non-GMO or GMO-free

Both terms imply that a food is free of genetically modified organisms—but neither one is regulated. To be most certain that the food you're buying is free of GMOs, look for foods that are certified organic and have a "Non-GMO Project Verified" seal.

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