How to Decipher These 6 Common Food Labels

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Take a stroll through the grocery store and you’ll likely feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of labels you see. Where one packaging screams that the food within is “organic,” another claims that it’s “non-GMO,” and still another that their product is “fair trade.” But what do these seals really mean? While some of them are regulated by the U.S. government, others are less standardized, and some are purely marketing. Here’s how to tell what you’re really getting when you hand over your hard-earned cash at the store.


A “fat-free” label is, for the most part, exactly what it sounds like. According to the FDA, foods with a “-free” suffix attached contain a “physiologically insignificant” amount of fat (or sugar or salt, usually less than half a gram), while anything marked “low-fat” can’t have more than 3 grams of fat per serving. If you’re trying to steer clear of fat, know that “fat-free” and “low-fat” don’t necessarily mean “low-calorie.” In order to compensate for the lack of fats, manufacturers often load foods with sugars, salts, or flour.


Vetted by the USDA, this means that 70 percent or more of the product is made of organic ingredients. The rest of the ingredients don’t have to be certified organic, but they can’t be made with excluded agricultural methods, like genetic engineering. The full product can’t be called organic, and the packaging has to stipulate which ingredients exactly are organic (“made with organic wheat and soy,” for instance, rather than simply “made with organic ingredients”).


This label is regulated by an independent nonprofit, rather than a government agency. To be eligible for this seal, a company must test all of its ingredients that could possibly come from genetically modified organisms (for instance, corn). Currently, anything that contains less than 0.9 percent GMO ingredients can qualify for the seal, because of testing limitations and because it’s virtually impossible to guarantee that seeds, crops, and ingredients have never been contaminated with GMO organisms. Products bearing the seal are audited every year. All that said, there’s wide scientific consensus that GMO products are just as safe as non-GMO foods, so this label doesn’t indicate anything about the healthfulness of the product.


No sugar can be added to these products during manufacturing, but they may still contain sugar. Some food naturally has high amounts of sugar, such as fruit or milk. Whether or not that’s actually a bad thing depends on the product. Fresh fruit, while full of sugar, has not been linked to negative health effects, while fruit juice is an easy way to consume excess calories and sugar. Furthermore, just because there’s no sugar in a product doesn’t mean it’s unsweetened. In terms of complying with the label, artificial sweeteners are just fine.


Monosodium glutamate, a savory flavor enhancer commonly associated with Chinese food in the United States, also appears in chicken broth, ramen noodles, Goldfish crackers, and more. A yeast extract, glutamate is also responsible for the taste of Marmite and Vegemite. If MSG has been added to a product, the USDA requires that it be listed on the ingredients list, rather than lumped into a listing like “spices.” MSG also occurs naturally in tomatoes and other produce, so food with those ingredients can’t be labelled as “no MSG” (though they can be in “no MSG added” products). Good luck finding food that is truly free of MSG (which studies have found to be totally safe) since, as the USDA puts it, “it is found in virtually all food and, in abundance, in food that is high in protein, including meat, poultry, cheeses, and fish.”


Products with a “Fair Trade” stamp are verified by one of a few international organizations. The specific standards vary depending on the group reviewing a grower or manufacturer, but generally speaking, they investigate working conditions, terms of trade, and ensure the product was produced as sustainably as possible. One thing to look out for if you’re trying to shop responsibly: to receive a “fair trade” certification, products need only contain 20 percent or more ingredients that are themselves fair trade. In order to really know what you’re buying, stick with single-ingredient items which must be 100 percent fair trade (sugar, coffee, etc.).