How to Deconstruct Food Marketing Jargon

Here are some common marketing terms and tactics used on food labels. Learn to separate the hyped from the healthy and make the most informed choices about your nutrition.
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Marketing and magic are frequent bedfellows, and entire teams of people get paid to create David Blaine–worthy illusory campaigns in order to make a product seem better/healthier than the 20 others just like it on the shelf. But not all this packaging-speak is useful — or even truthful — and marketing experts bank on the assumption that you won’t do your homework. But you can outsmart the marketing mayhem and make the best choices possible for yourself and your family. Here, we dive into some common verbiage used on product packaging — what it means, what it doesn’t and what it may or may not mean for your health.

Woman in a grocery store looking at a food label

Learn how to outsmart the marketing mayhem and make the best food choices for you and your family.

Organic

The organic food market is booming, and in 2016, consumers spent more than $43 billion on organic products. In order to get a USDA-certified organic label, farmers must adhere to specific guidelines for the cultivation of both produce and livestock, and farms are inspected annually to ensure compliance. Inspectors test things like soil quality, animal-raising practices, water systems, pest and weed control, and use of additives.

Whether organically raised produce and livestock are healthier or more nutritious remains a hotly debated issue. Regardless, buying items raised with healthier methods can’t hurt any, so if you can afford organic products, then go for it. To help you decide what’s worth the money and what’s not, look for these levels of organic grading on the product’s packaging.

Donut

Organic or not, a donut is still a donut.

100% Organic

All the ingredients in these products are organically grown and the product carries the USDA organic seal. But remember, just because a food is 100 percent organic does not mean it is good for you. An organic cookie is still a cookie, regardless of how its ingredients were produced.

Organic

These products must contain 95 percent or more organic ingredients to be allowed to carry the USDA organic seal. But the other 5 percent of ingredients can be non-organic in nature, so read the packaging carefully.

Made With Organic Ingredients

These items must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients but are not allowed to carry the USDA organic seal. The organic ingredients are labeled as such on the packaging, but as to what comprises the other 30 percent of the product — that remains to be seen.

The National Organic Program allows for 25 kinds of synthetic products and pesticides to be used in crop production. In comparison, conventional farming allows for more than 900 kinds of synthetic products.

Animal Products

More and more people are concerned with animal welfare and are seeking out more humane products when they shop. Again, labels here can be misleading, so here’s the skinny on some of the most commonly used terms.

Grass-Fed vs. Grass-Finished

A grass-fed animal’s primary food source is grass or forage, not grain. However, grass-fed animals may have been fed grain in a feedlot during the last few months of their lives. A grass-finished animal, on the other hand, is one that ate nothing but grass and forage its entire life. There is very little regulation around both products, so do some research if this is a concern of yours.

Chicken

To get an HFAC seal, animals must be fed a nutritious diet with no hormones or growth-promoting drugs.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled

Humane Farm Animal Care is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals. To get an HFAC seal, animals must be fed a nutritious diet with no hormones or growth-promoting drugs, and they must be raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and ability to engage in natural behaviors. They are never confined in cages or stalls, and though they do consume some feed, they also forage and eat grass, bugs and worms. HFAC standards require that farmworkers be trained in humane animal care and that all HFAC inspectors hold advanced degrees in animal science.

Pasture-Raised

These animals are allowed access to the outside world and/or are allowed to spend some time outdoors feeding on grass and foraging. While this sounds legit, there are no third-party verifications or inspections required to make this marketing claim, which means an animal may be allowed outside for five minutes a day or could be eating supplemental grain in addition to grass.

Cage-Free

This term indicates that an animal lived its life outside of a cage. However, the animals may be restricted to a barn without doors and 24/7 lighting, which prevents sleep and encourages overeating for meatier animals. It also does not specify how much space the animals must have to live.

Free-Range

This term means that animals must have continuous access to the outside. But there are no requirements for the amount, duration and quality of the outdoor access.

Ketchup

Sweeteners are sneaky and can be found in everything from ketchup to salad dressing.

Sweeteners

Sugar is the most commonly added food ingredient in the U.S. and can be found in everything from ketchup and cereal to meat and salad dressing. Americans consume more than 57 pounds of sugar in a single year — or about 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day — and a bevy of studies show that sugar is as addictive — or even more so — than cocaine. These are some of the terms to look out for when it comes to sweeteners, both natural and artificial.

Oreo Cookies

Research done at Connecticut College showed that Oreo cookies activated more neurons in the brain's pleasure center than cocaine.

Reduced Sugar

These products contain 25 percent less sugar per serving than a similar “regular” product. They can, however, contain artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame and maltodextrin as well as added fat for flavor.

No Added Sugar

This term only means that no sugar was added to the food during processing, but this does not mean it’s sugar-free. Products made with fruit or fruit juice contain naturally occurring sugars, such as jam, applesauce and pasta sauce.

Naturally Sweetened

If just “some” of the sugar in a product is natural — e.g., derived from a source such as stevia, agave, coconut sugar or brown rice syrup — it can be called naturally sweetened. This does not mean it does not contain granulated sugar, and it’s also unclear whether high-fructose corn syrup is considered “natural” since it is made from corn.

Lightly Sweetened

This term means nothing because whether an item is “lightly sweet” is subjective to whomever is eating it.

Fruit-flavored cereal

Many times, fruit-flavored products don't contain any real fruit.

Fruit-Flavored

Yes, a product might taste like a fruit, but that does not mean it actually contains any real fruit — just chemicals designed to taste like fruit.

Bread

The bread aisle is where a lot of people trip up when it comes to healthy choices. Overly processed bread is made with refined flour, which is comparable to sugar in terms of spiking your blood sugar and inducing inflammation, so look beyond the marketing terminology and go straight
to the ingredient list for the truth about your loaf. Here are some terms to look out for when shopping for your sandwich staple.

100% Whole Grain/Whole Wheat

This is the label you need to seek out. It means that the entire grain — including the germ, endosperm and bran — was used to make the bread. Whole-grain intake is associated with lower risk for disease, better digestion and optimal health, and it is the product that will be best for you.

Studies show that the fiber in a whole-grain product acts as a prebiotic to nourish your healthy gut bacteria.

Whole-Wheat Bread

A manufacturer can label an item “whole wheat” if it contains just 51 percent whole-wheat flour, so read the label carefully to see what else is in there.

Sliced white bread

Wheat Bread

This is basically the same as a white-bread product — it’s just made with unbleached flour. Pass it by.

Multigrain, 7-Grain, 12-Grain, etc.

This is probably the most confusing and misleading label allowed, because while it does mean that different grains were used to make a product, it does not mean they were whole grains; they could simply be different kinds of refined flour. If a percentage is not listed on the label or if the product contains “bleached” or “enriched” items, it does not contain 100 percent whole grains.

Gluten-Free

Unless you legitimately have celiac disease, there’s no need to waste your money on pricier gluten-free products. Gluten-free items may not be any healthier than other products either, and they might contain added fat, sugar, sugar alcohol or salt for palatability.

High-Fiber

These products contain 5 grams of fiber or more per serving. That fiber does not have to be natural to the product, however, and can be added during processing.

Enriched

This means that nutrients have been added back into a product after processing has stripped it of most of its vitamins and minerals — the ultimate in Frankenfood.

Cows

Terms like "sustainable" are currently on trend because it taps into our desire for reciprocity and environmental responsibility.

Trending Terms

With the ever-changing nature of nutrition, certain terms are born of hot-button topics. Here are the ones that are currently on trend and what they mean for your bottom line — and your bottom.

Natural/All-Natural

These labels mean absolutely nothing. (Read that again.) The Food and Drug Administration does not define or regulate the use of these terms — it just loosely advises that “natural” products should not contain artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and should be minimally processed. What’s more, animals raised with hormones or antibiotics can be used in a natural product, as can high-fructose corn syrup.

Local/Locally Sourced

These terms indicate that a food is grown fewer than 400 miles away from the location in which it is sold/served. The idea is that something grown closer will arrive fresher, taste better and generate fewer carbon emissions to arrive on your plate. But what people consider to be local is often subjective, and this claim is not at all regulated.

Sustainable

Brands use this term to tap into our desire for reciprocity and environmental responsibility. Ostensibly, it indicates that the methods used in the farming or manufacturing of a product were such that they helped conserve the natural environment. However, there is no way to verify whether an item is sustainably produced.

A study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that organic beef contained more antioxidants and alpha-linolenic acid, as well as 17 percent less cholesterol and 32 percent less fat, than conventionally raised beef. 

Corn

More than 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. contain genetically modified traits.

Non-GMO/GMO-Free

There is a popular trend to reduce the number of genetically modified organisms — GMOs — included in our food chain, and some research links GMOs to everything from Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s to inflammation and cancer. Other research directly refutes these claims, and the battle rages on as to what,
if any, danger GMOs present.

A nonprofit called The Non-GMO Project has developed a third-party verification process, and to receive their seal, a product must contain less than 1 percent genetically modified or engineered organisms. The thing is, most food at one time or another has been genetically “modified” — not necessarily in a laboratory but rather through selective produce crossbreeding. For example, the original American settlers selectively bred maize plants in order to develop larger, heartier ears of corn.

Bottom line: Until exact guidelines are implemented and closely monitored, this term should be taken with a grain of salt.

Free, Reduced, Low and Light

Those looking to lose weight or eat healthier are the unequivocal target for these terms, which often highlight the inclusion, reduction or elimination of an ingredient or food group. These products are not necessarily lower in overall calories, though, and also may contain added sugar, sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, and hydrogenated and/or partially hydrogenated oil. If you choose to buy these kinds of items, make sure you note the number of servings it contains, which ultimately determines its overall nutritive value. Here are some of the most common labels associated with these “diet” products.

Sugar-/Fat-/Trans-Fat-Free

A product contains less than 0.5 grams of the indicated
ingredient per serving.

Calorie-Free

The item must contain 5 calories or fewer per serving.

Reduced Fat/Sodium/Sugar/Calorie

These products contain 25 percent less of the specified
ingredient than a regular comparable product.

Low-Fat

The food has 3 grams or less fat per serving.

Nutrition Facts Food Label

Always read labels very carefully.

Low Calorie

The food contains fewer than 40 calories per serving.

Low/Very Low Sodium

A low-sodium item contains 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving; a very low-sodium item contains 35 milligrams or less per serving.

Low Cholesterol

An item contains 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol per serving.

Cholesterol-Free

A product contains less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.

Lightly Salted

An item contains 50 percent less sodium than the original/regular product. 

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