Each year brings a host of new food products and trendy terms and claims to describe them. Too often, however, blurry definitions and vague usage can lead to confusion. Learn which food marketing phrases can help you make healthier choices—and which terms won’t make much of a difference to your diet.
No formal definition for the use of "natural" on food labels has been issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, "natural" claims have become common on new foods and beverages. FDA follows a 1993 policy that states:
[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. Use of the term "natural" is not permitted in a product's ingredient list, with the exception of the phrase "natural flavorings."
USDA allows the use of the term "natural" to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients or added color. The product also must be only minimally processed. The label must explain the use of the term natural, for example, no added coloring; minimally processed.
Processed and unprocessed
These terms are frequently misunderstood. Many people think of "processed" as unhealthy packaged foods with empty calories and loads of additives, and 'unprocessed' as foods that are not canned, frozen or packaged. Neither of these beliefs is entirely correct.
According to a 2008 federal law, "processed" refers to food that has undergone a "change of character." Examples include raw nuts (unprocessed) vs. roasted nuts (processed); edamame (unprocessed) vs. tofu (processed); a head of spinach (unprocessed) vs. cut, pre-washed spinach (processed). Learn more about processed food.
The local food movement refers to buying food that is grown close to where you live. This movement is connected to a broader philosophy of environmental sustainability and supporting the local economy. Still, even 'local' can have a variety of nuances depending upon who you ask. The term "locovore" is used to describe someone who eats food grown or produced locally.
There is no regulatory definition of whole foods. "Whole foods" generally refer to foods that are not processed or refined and do not have any added ingredients. By most definitions, whole foods include fresh produce, dairy, whole grains, meat and fish; meaning any food that appears in its most pure form with minimal processing.
Of all these terms, "organic" has the most specific criteria and legal meaning. As defined by the USDA, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods are produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. A government-approved certifier must inspect the farm to ensure these standards are met. In addition to organic farming, there are USDA standards for organic handling and processing.
There are three levels of organic claims for food:
- 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.
Reviewed January 2013