There are a lot of labels on food. That kind of goes without saying. But it can still be pretty difficult to discern what those labels mean exactly, and who actually decides to put them there. Like, what is it that deems something “healthy” on a label, for example? Or who makes sure something is really gluten-free? And, my personal greatest confusion, what, if any, is the difference between organic and all-natural foods?
As it turns out, there are distinct differences between all these labels, and how they get assigned and decided upon is a pretty interesting (albeit it kind of confusing) process.
For the most part, it's the FDA that regulates the kinds of words that can be used to describe products. And of course, it's the nutrition label itself that is supposed to be the most informative means of customer choice, identifying ingredients, nutrition facts, suggested daily values, and net weight.
According to Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., director of the FDA's Office of Nutrition, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements, "the food label is one of the most valuable tools consumers have.” She added on the FDA website that a thorough label puts more power into the hands of the consumer, so they are able to make choices for themselves according to their particular nutrition concerns.
But the thing that can make it a lot more difficult to figure out what's what in the grocery store is how insanely similar some of these labels are to one another. "Organic," "all-natural," and even "healthy" all kind of sound like the exact same thing, even though they're not. At least, they're definitely not the same thing from a regulatory point of view.
FDA policy states that, to call a food "natural" means it doesn't contain synthetic or artificial ingredients.
But the guidelines and restrictions on whether or not food companies can use the "natural" label on a product are not as strict or specific as some of the other labels.
In order for the FDA to label a food "healthy," for example, there are very specific rules and criteria the food product must meet. This criteria has to do with limits of sodium, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Food labeled "healthy" must also have a certain minimum requirement of beneficial nutrients, like vitamins and minerals.
And as for organic? It's a whole other ball game.
"Organic" food isn't actually regulated by the FDA; it's regulated by the Department of Agriculture. This is because "organic" refers to how the food is produced (like the way it's grown, how it's treated, etc.). To call something organic means the crops were grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms. Animals and animal products that are organic also haven't been given any growth hormones or antibiotics.
But these things can get really confusing for consumers who are simply trying to make choices about what's best to put in their bodies. A 2014 survey by Consumer Reports showed that the majority of Americans surveyed believed a "natural" label meant the food had no genetic engineering, no pesticides, and no artificial ingredients.
But alas, as you've learned, calling something all-natural doesn't have anything to do with how the food was treated or produced. That's “organic” territory, my friend. The term "all-natural" only refers to what the food contains. For instance, "natural" tomato sauce could definitely contain "natural" tomatoes that have still been treated with pesticides.
And because the definitions of these things aren't necessarily common knowledge or particularly clear on the product labels, it seems like it's up to a little more interpretation than one might like to think.
To avoid confusion, I personally try to keep things as simple as possible when I'm grocery shopping. While I do try to stick to organic purchases, I also try to find foods with labels that have the least amount of ingredients in them.
And, because I'm not one for mystery, I try to look for labels with ingredients I can actually read. Is that really so much to ask for?