• Mon, Jun 23 - 2:32 pm ET

5 ‘Fancy’ Food Label Terms You Need To Understand Before You Buy Another Morsel

natural

How many times have you chosen the ‘artisanal’ loaf over the plain old baguette, or the ‘natural’ chicken to save some dollars on the organic stuff? Food label creators reach from an arsenal of fancy language to rope you into buying their product, so it’s important to be able to sniff out the bs from the truth. Here’s a glossary of some terms that can be misleading if you aren’t savvy to their meaning.

1. Artisanal

If words were a high school, then ‘artisan’ would be the hot new student in class. This is one of the trendiest terms being thrown around lately, and everyone from Domino’s to Arby’s wants a piece. The only problem is that the definition of artisanal is diametrically opposed to the way these companies are using it. An artisan, as Merriam-Webster states, is ‘one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods.’ So how a national chain that mass-produces their food, like Panera Bread or Burger King, can get away with using this term is simply because there’s no legal reason they can’t.

2. Natural

‘Natural’ lives in the same, unregulated realm as artisanal, so tons of corporations are free to abuse it on their labels. The US Food and Drug Administration’s policy on the term: ”[FDA] has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.” Sounds great, but this leaves a lot of loopholes for clever corporations to get around. In other words, a yogurt company can claim that the processed sweeteners like corn syrup and fructose are natural, since they’re technically derived from nature. Be very wary when buying ‘natural’ products, and always read the ingredients.

3. Reduced Sodium

There are many creative ways to say your product has ‘low sodium,’ and they all have surprisingly different meanings, as helpfully laid out in this article. Basically, if the product says ‘sodium free,’ ‘very low sodium,’ or ‘low sodium,’ then most of the time it really does have a significantly low level of salt. The trouble comes with phrases like ‘reduced sodium,’ ‘light in sodium,’ and ‘lightly salted.’ For example, by FDA rules, you can say your product has reduced sodium if it has at least 25% less sodium than in the original version of the item. That’s tricky, because if you’re eating Cup Noodles, then 25% of 2060 mg of sodium still equals a sick amount of sodium. Always read the label if you’re concerned about your sodium intake.

4. Organic

When it comes to organic, the United States Department of Agriculture lays out three categories:

“-100-percent Organic: Products that are completely organic or made of only organic ingredients qualify for this claim and a USDA Organic seal.

-Organic: Products in which at least 95 percent of its ingredients are organic qualify for this claim and a USDA Organic seal.

-Made with Organic Ingredients: These are food products in which at least 70 percent of ingredients are certified organic. The USDA organic seal cannot be used but “made with organic ingredients” may appear on its packaging.”

Pretty straightforward stuff, unlike the tricky loopholes involved with ‘natural.’

5. Non-GMO

Unlike organic products, the FDA and USDA have no regulation over products containing genetically modified organisms. However, the Non-GMO Project is “North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance,” so a product containing its seal can be trusted to have a rigorously low level of at-risk ingredients. As with natural and artisanal, any product can claim to be GMO-free, but if they don’t have the Project’s stamp, then you can’t be positive they’re tested.

(Image: Leszek Glasner/Shutterstock)

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  • Alana Vincenza

    I’ve been pretending to fully understand all of these, so thanks for this!

  • Lily Savage

    Great post! I totally fake nod my way through these conversations and pretend I totally know what I’m talking about when discussing different food labels and now I can actually add something constructive to the conversation!