Nowadays, there are so many labels on foods in supermarkets that it’s difficult to be an informed consumer. For example, did you know that “pastured” and “pasteurized” refer to two entirely unrelated concepts! Until recently, I certainly didn’t. The confusion around these labels makes it difficult to decide whether or not to spend the extra dollar on a product that may, or may not, be any healthier. In the end, the choice depends on your personal priorities. For that reason, I put together a concise guide to what some of the most common labels actually mean. Where applicable, I used United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and/or Food and Drug Administration (FDA) resources to build this guide, which means it may not apply to other countries where terms, such as “organic,” are defined differently.
After each definition, I also rated the label with an “Importance Level” (just my opinion) on a scale of 1-3, 1 being the least important and 3 being most important.
Cold-pressed (oils): Cold-pressed oils are extracted from foods (like olives) without using heat. This retains antioxidants and other nutrients, making for a healthier oil. (Importance Level: 2)
Cured: Curing is a food preservation technique that involves the addition of salts, usually sodium or potassium nitrites and nitrates, to foods. This inhibits microbial growth to increase the presumed safety and shelf life of the food. Curing is also practiced for aesthetic appeal because nitrites and nitrates give cured meats a more reddish color. However, there is controversy over the long-term health impacts of nitrites and nitrates (see no nitrites/nitrates). (Importance Level: 2)
Extra virgin (olive oil): Extra virgin olive oil is the oil extracted from the first press of the olive without the addition of heat (see cold-pressed) or chemicals. This makes the oil more flavorful and nutritious. (Importance Level: 2)
Free-range: Free-range incorrectly implies that the animal is given the freedom to roam, graze, and feed naturally. Unfortunately, the label isn’t well regulated. For example, free-range chicken can be severely confined to a hen house that has a small opening to the outdoors. Rather than buying free-range products, look for “grass-fed” meat and “pastured” eggs and (see grass-fed and pastured). (Importance Level: 1)
Fairtrade: Fairtrade practices promote sustainability and decent working conditions for producers. Fairtrade is less about your health and more about global altruism. (Importance Level: 2)
Genetically modified organism (GMO): According to the USDA’s agriculture biotechnology glossary, GMOs are defined as “organism(s) produced through genetic modification.” This broad definition is problematic since it includes not only produce and animals created using modern gene editing technologies, but also those created by artificial human selection over decades. By this definition, domesticated dogs are GMOs! According to the USDA, GMOs are distinct from genetically engineered organisms (GEOs), which specifically refers to organisms produced using modern molecular biology techniques. While GMOs aren’t necessarily bad — for example, golden rice has been engineered to produce vitamin A to fight vitamin A deficiency — we also don’t have evidence that GMOs (or, at least, GEOs) are safe to consume long-term. (Importance Level: 1)
Gluten-free: Gluten-free products lack the gluten protein (yes, gluten is a protein). Unless you have Celiac disease, or another bona fide gluten intolerance, gluten-free products may not necessarily be healthier for you, just more expensive. (Importance Level: 1)
Grass-fed: Grass-fed cattle and other ruminants are permitted to feed on their evolutionary diet of grass, rather than grain. This is really important because it increases the omega-3 to omega-6 fat ratio of the animals’ meat, which helps to decrease inflammation and fight heart disease as well as other chronic diseases. When possible, buy grass-fed red meat. When possible, buy grass-fed red meat. Even better, look for “grass-fed and grass-finished” or “100% grass-fed.” These labels are the gold standard because they mean the animals were fed on grass throughout their entire lives! (Importance Level: 3)
Multigrain: Multigrain (seven-grain, twelve-grain, etc.) simply means the product contains more than one type of grain. The grains may still be refined. A label you may want to look for instead is whole grain or whole wheat (see whole grain). (Importance Level: 1)
Natural: Natural (or All Natural) food, according to the FDA, doesn’t contain anything one wouldn’t expect to be found in food. For example, natural foods don’t contain dyes. However, natural foods may be produced and processed using unnatural techniques, including the use of pesticides and pasteurization. They may also contain added compounds that come from nature but aren’t necessarily healthy, like high fructose corn syrup. In brief, the term is not well regulated and doesn’t mean much. (Importance Level: 1)
No added sugar: No added sugar simply means the manufacturer did not add extra sugar to the product, not that the product is low sugar. For example, honey and maple syrup could be labeled as no added sugar, even though they are all sugar. No added sugar products can also contain artificial sweeteners that may be bad for your health. (Importance Level: 2)
No antibiotics/raised without antibiotics: Antibiotics are chemicals used to kill bacteria. Over 80% of the antibiotics produced in the United States are not given to humans but rather added to animal feed to prevent them from getting sick and to promote growth. While this may sound like a good idea, the practice is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it is possible that the antibiotics accumulate in the animals we eat and get passed on directly to us. This can negatively affect the good bacteria in our guts that are critical to our health, leading to an increase in chronic illness. Second, the widespread use of antibiotics gives rise to resistant bacteria, or superbugs, that can also spread to humans and cause serious illness. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s important to look for the no antibiotics or organic (see organic) label. (Importance Level: 3)
No nitrites/nitrates: Nitrates and nitrates are added to food as part of a preservation process called curing (see cured). Some suggest that treating red meats with nitrites and nitrates can increase a person’s risk of developing certain cancers. While there is evidence that eating processed meats is associated with an increased risk of cancer, it is not clear that this is because of nitrites and nitrates. Nevertheless, it still may be a good idea to buy meat, at least red meat, that unprocessed. (Importance Level: 2)
Organic: Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without synthetic pesticides or GMOs (see GMO); however, the use of certain organic pesticides is permitted. Organic livestock are raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and given access open spaces where they can graze and feed naturally during most of the year; however, organic livestock may also be confined during parts of the year and, importantly, can be grain-fed (see grass-fed and pastured). Finally, it’s important to note that organic packaged foods are permitted to contain 5% non-organic ingredients and food suspiciously labeled as “made with organic ingredients” can contain even more non-organic ingredients. In brief, organic may be healthier, but it’s still a good idea to wash your organic produce, buy pastured eggs and grass-fed meat, and understand that organic processed food can contain non-organic ingredients. (Importance Level: 3)
Pasteurized: Pasteurization (not to be confused with pastured) is the process of treating food products, such as dairy products, to kill pathogens and increase shelf life. Pasteurization also kills healthy bacteria that can improve our gut health. Therefore, although eating unpasteurized dairy products comes with a low risk of getting acutely sick, many argue that eating unpasteurized is healthier in the long run. (Importance Level: 2)
Pastured (egg): Believe it or not, pastured is completely different from pasteurized. Pastured eggs come from birds that are raised naturally in a pasture, rather than in confinement. This means the animals can feed on their evolutionarily natural diet, which, again, increases the omega-3 to omega-6 fat ratio of the egg (see grass-fed). Incredibly, normal USDA-certified chicken eggs have an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of about 1:20, whereas pastured eggs have an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of around 1:1.3! (Importance Level: 3)
Raw (dairy): Unpasteurized dairy (see unpasteurized). (Importance Level: 2)
Unpasteurized (dairy): Dairy that is not pasteurized (see pasteurized). This retains the good bacteria and is generally considered a healthy practice. (Importance Level: 2)
Whole grain/whole wheat: Whole grain/whole wheat means that all parts of the grain (the bran, germ, and endosperm) are used, resulting in a healthier product that has more nutrients. This is distinct from multigrain (see multigrain). (Importance Level: 2)
Wild-caught (fish): Wild-caught fish are typically considered to be healthier than farm-raised fish for the same reason grass-fed beef and pastured eggs (see grass-fed and pastured) are considered to be healthier: because wild-caught fish are allowed to live and eat the way they evolved to do. Wild-caught fish typically have a better omega-3 to omega-6 ratio and don’t contain some of the chemical and carcinogens, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), that are often in the feed of farmed fish and which can bioaccumulate in their bodies. (Importance Level: 3)
I know, that’s a lot! And even with these definitions, food producers can get tricky and deceptive with their language; so, it’s always a good idea to do research on specific brands and companies if you’re really committed. Alternatively, if you’re like me and this is all very overwhelming, you may find the table below helpful. In the top half of the table, I list what I look for when buying produce and proteins. In the bottom half of the table, I list the most misleading terms and what I look for instead.