"Wait, What?": A Food Label Story

Picture this: You’re at the grocery store, you’re looking at three different boxes of pasta, and you’re stuck on which one to choose. What would tip you over the edge to buy one instead of the others? Specifically, think about what words you gravitate toward. Now read this.

A study conducted by Morning Consult asked participants which words made them more or less likely to buy a certain food or beverage product. The overwhelming results showed that people look for one word over others. Any guesses? It was the word fresh. Eighty-one percent of participants said a food or beverage would be more appealing to them and they would be therefore more likely to buy it if it had this one word on the label, which was true across demographic groups according to Morning Consult. This got me thinking. How many consumers actually know what the words that impact their purchasing decisions mean? It’s no secret that food marketing has gotten kind of out of control in recent years, and health claims made on labels are no different. I’m going to explain exactly what a few of the most popular claims mean below, and hopefully equip you with a little more information to make choosing between products (or at least understanding labels) easier. If this is all new information to you, you are definitely not alone. This type of stuff isn’t exactly public knowledge, and while it’s available to read about online, few consumers take the time to do so (and products aren’t exactly advertising it on their products). Let’s start with the big winner: fresh. Check out the study’s data at the bottom!

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While I love that people are gravitating toward fresh foods, the word “fresh” on a food label or package is a bit misleading (as you could have probably guessed). The FDA defines the word “fresh” as a food that’s in its raw state. This means it hasn’t undergone any freezing, thermal processing, or thermal preservation. However, what would you think if I told you that foods labeled as “fresh” are allowed to have:

  • Waxes or coatings

  • Post-harvest use of pesticides

  • Ionizing radiation treatment (with a maximum dose specified)

  • Chlorine or acid wash

Don’t worry, my jaw dropped too. In my opinion, adding these treatments makes it so that the food is no longer in its raw state, and thus is fairly contradictory in nature. In other words: Something that’s labeled as fresh may not be as fresh as you think or hope it is.

When you see the words “fresh frozen” or “frozen fresh” on a label, it simply means the food was quickly frozen not long after harvesting when it was still fresh. This may include blanching, which is just a harmless cooking process that helps make sure produce doesn’t lose its quality over time, and may make it easier to reheat and prepare at home. Moving on…


According to the FDA, the word “healthy” on a nutrition label can be used if the food is deemed “useful in creating a diet that is consistent with dietary recommendations.” This means it has to meet specific criteria when it comes to specific nutrients.

  • Total fat: 3 g or less of fat per portion (aka “low fat”)

  • Saturated fat: 1 g or less of fat per portion (aka “low saturated fat”)

  • Cholesterol: 90-05 mg or less per portion or labeled serving

  • Sodium: 480 mg or below per portion (which they define as an amount that would be customarily consumed per eating occasion, or as a labeled serving if provided on the label)

  • Beneficial nutrients: Contains at least 10% of the Daily Value per portion for vitamins A, C, calcium iron, protein, or fiber.

  • Or has been fortified to provide additional nutrients to a food

These guidelines are applicable to any related term, including healthful, healthfully, healthfulness, healthier, healthiest, healthily, and healthiness. Interestingly, the FDA changed its definition of “healthy” over the last couple years as part of a plan to give consumers better tools to make easy and quick food choice that are consistent with public health recommendations, as well as encourage the food industry to develop healthier foods. The FDA states they will define the term “healthy” based on up-to-date nutrition criteria, and may even include a standard symbol for packaging purposes. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, aims to change “healthy” from focusing on specific nutrients to focusing on healthful food groups, like whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. In my mind, these seem like good things, but time will tell if they are actually helpful changes. Next up…


To me, natural is one of the more problematic descriptions on a food label or package. With the current FDA policy, the word “natural” (or “all natural”) means that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to or included in a food that wouldn’t normally be expected to be there. Sounds harmless, but the issue is that this policy doesn’t include food production, processing, and manufacturing methods like the use of pesticides, thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation (many of which people may not consider natural). To make matters worse, the FDA admits to not considering if the use of “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit. What? Who looks at a label, sees the word “natural,” and doesn’t automatically think there is some sort of benefit for their nutrition or health status?

Well, the good news is that the FDA decided in 2016 that it was going to work toward changing their definition and use of the word “natural” using public comments regarding our definition of the word '“natural.” The comment period received 7,600 comments (some with some more choice language than others), but the policy has not yet changed. Gottlieb has stated that the “natural” claim has to be based on science, as they are trying to do with the “healthy” claim. I would agree with that. He also stated that the word needs to focus on what is in a food versus what’s not.

To go one step further, the FDA might also clarify ingredients that a consumer would not recognize as actually natural, and may actually perceive them to be artificial. An example is vitamin B6, which is known as pyridoxine. Or potassium chloride, which is a simple salt and does not have anything to do with bleach, contrary to the belief of some. This would be a really positive change in my mind because it promotes transparency, and would it hopefully reduce the demonization that has gotten out of control in regards to certain foods and ingredients. Lastly…


The use of organic is a little more regulated than the other terms because a level of certification is involved. To be labeled as “organic,” a food needs to have been:

  • Produced without certain excluded methods, including genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.

  • Produced using certain allowed substances: these substances may be synthetic or nonsynthetic. Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production include alcohols, chlorine materials, soap-based herbicides, mulches, insecticidal soaps, sticky traps, copper, and vitamins, just to name a few. These lists differ for livestock production.

  • Overseen and certified by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized agent, which necessitates the need to follow all USDA organic regulations

Without certification that a final product is organic, the USDA does not allow for the use of the “organic” claim or symbol on the package; however, ingredients that are organic may be labeled as such, and the percentage of organic ingredients within the the product can be shown.

To be labeled as organic, a food needs to have a minimum of 95% organic ingredients (not including salt and water), and the remaining 5% can be nonorganic agricultural products that aren’t commercially available as organic. A food labeled as “100% organic” would have 100% organic ingredients (other than salt and water). A food labeled as “made with organic ingredients” has at least 70% organic ingredients. So if purchasing organic foods is of high importance for you, you would want to go with “organic” or “100% organic,” depending on the food.

The real.

Obviously these terms leaves a lot to be desired, and what’s interesting to me is that sometimes they don’t even take into consideration the root of the word itself (like how “natural” doesn’t relate to any level of health or nutrition, and “healthy” doesn’t take healthy food groups instead of individual nutrients into consideration). Familiarizing yourself with what different health claims mean help you to decipher some of the garbage that we see on food labels that manipulates you to buy certain products over others. Does this mean you have to avoid all packaged food? Absolutely not. But don’t be fooled into thinking every product is going to give you some sort of health benefit just because they tell you they are all natural or organic (or even healthy…).

On the other side of that, I also don’t want to encourage anyone to read every single label with every ingredient, nutrition fact, etc. because this will make any sane person go crazy. I strongly believe it also has the potential to lead into disordered eating patterns and/or damaged relationships with food. So just take this information with a grain of salt and use it more as a tool instead of a rule when making your food choices.

I’ll leave you with an interesting fact from the study: There’s also a particular word that participants found least appealing, and made them less likely to buy the product. Any ideas? Vegan. That surprised me too!

Thoughts or questions? I’d love to know. Email me!

Data from the 2018 report from Morning Consult titled:  Consumer Trends in the Food and Beverage Industry.

Data from the 2018 report from Morning Consult titled: Consumer Trends in the Food and Beverage Industry.

Emmy Bawden