Understanding Food Labels 101

Food Labels

Make sure you understand these commonly used terms on food labels (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

It seems like food labels have been constantly changing over the past decade or so as consumer demand has increased for things like organic and gluten-free food.  But for everyday consumers who are just looking to buy the best food for their family while staying within their budget, the meaning behind the labels may not be as clear as it should be.  In order to help you make the best choice for your budget, here is a breakdown of the most commonly used new terminology and what it actually means and doesn’t mean.


When it comes to using the term organic, there are strict regulations governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)that dictate the conditions under which these terms can be used.   In all cases, organic ingredients must be specifically identified as organic on the label.   There are several levels of organic labeling as outlined below.

100% Organic – This means that everything used to make that item is certified as organic, including ingredients and processing aids, and the product can display the “USDA Organic” seal.   The label must also identify the certifying agency.

Organic – This that all agricultural ingredients must be certified organic unless they have been exempted and are listed on the USDA’s National List.   The total of exempted non-organic ingredients that can be included is limited to 5%.  Water and salt, which cannot be certified as organic, can be included but do not count towards that 5%.  Product can display the USDA organic seal and must identify the certifying agency.

Made with Organic Ingredients – This means that at least 70% of the ingredients used in the product are certified organic (excluding salt and water).  The remaining agricultural ingredients do not have to be certified organic but cannot be produced using methods that have been excluded by the USDA.  Additionally, any non-agricultural ingredients have to be on the USDA’s National List.  The product’s label can indicate that it was “made with organic _____” and list up to three ingredients.  The label cannot display the USDA seal, cannot use any wording that indicates it is organic or made with organic ingredients (except for the one way listed above, and must indicate the agency that certified the organic ingredients on the label.)

Ingredients List Indicates Organic Ingredients – This means that while the product does contain some organic ingredients, it doesn’t meet the 70% threshold.  These products are also not allowed to use the USDA seal and cannot use any labeling that indicates they are “made with” organic ingredients.


The term natural, except when applied to meat, can mean just about anything the labeler wants it to which is kind of unfortunate for consumers.  It is an unregulated term which means there is no set definition around what the product in question can or cannot contain.  What this means for you is that if you have two options and one is labeled “natural” and costs more, you are better off choosing the less expensive one because there is no guarantee you are getting anything different for the extra dollars.

When meat is labeled as “natural” what it really means is that the meat has been through minimal processing.  Additionally, meat carrying this label cannot contain any artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, or anything else that would be considered an artificial ingredient.


When used to label meat and eggs, the term “free range” means the producer has demonstrated that the animals have access to the outside.

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