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Understanding Food Marketing Terms

Contributors: Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: July 12, 2019

Reviewed: September 19, 2023

Understanding Food Marketing Terms - Woman Grocery Shopping

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.


Currently, no formal definition for the use of "natural" on food labels has been issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, "natural" claims have become common on new foods and beverages.

According to their website, "Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term 'natural,' we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of 'natural' in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term 'natural' to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term 'natural' should describe any nutritional or other health benefit."

USDA allows the use of the term "natural" to be used in the labeling of flavorings, however, those ingredients are subject to FDA regulations. Ingredients that come from animal sources also must be disclosed and cannot be listed as “natural flavoring."

"Processed" and "Unprocessed"

These terms are frequently misunderstood. Many people think of "processed" foods as unhealthy products with empty calories, and "unprocessed" foods as everything else. Neither of these beliefs is entirely correct.

According to the USDA, "processed" refers to food that has undergone a "change of character." Some examples include raw nuts (unprocessed) vs. roasted nuts (processed); edamame (unprocessed) vs. tofu (processed); a whole piece of fruit (unprocessed) vs. cut and peeled fruit (processed). A variety of healthful foods are considered "processed” but still have a place among the foods you eat.


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 whom you ask, as there’s not a definitive distance used by everyone. 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 refers to foods that are minimally processed and do not have any added ingredients. By most definitions, whole foods include fresh produce, whole grains, meat and fish — more specifically, any food that appears close to its original 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% 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% 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% of ingredients are certified organic. The USDA organic seal cannot be used but "made with organic ingredients" may appear on its packaging.

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