Skip Navigation

User's Guide to Food Labels

By Brennen Jensen
What terms like “all natural,” “humanely raised,” and “cage free” really mean.

Time was, buying eggs was a pretty straightforward affair. You mainly looked for the size of eggs you wanted and the price you were willing to pay. (And, oh yeah, you popped open the carton for a quick peek to see if any were cracked.) And now? The carton might contain information about what the hens ate: Was it organic? All-vegetarian? How the hens were raised: Were they cage-free or freerange or out in pasture? There might also be claims about your future omelet having boosted levels of omega-3s. The prices, meanwhile, will be all over the map.

And it’s not just egg shopping that’s gotten more complicated. Food labels in general sport more words making claims that require more time in the grocery aisle. The government itself got in the act back in the 1990s when nutrition facts panels were first added to food—dry lines of nutrient data spelled out in milligrams and daily value percentages.

Here’s some help for the next time you find yourself pushing a shopping cart—hopefully one with four good wheels.

Meet the New Nutrition Facts Panel

To incorporate the latest nutritional thinking, the FDAmandated nutrition facts panel is getting its first substantive overhaul since its debut in the 1990s. All food packaging must use the new panel by 2020, but many companies are already displaying it. What’s added and what’s removed? Here’s a guided tour, with commentary from Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center and an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

1 / Bigger, Bolder

Calorie and serving size information are bolded and in a larger font. The governmentcalculated serving sizes have also increased to better reflect Americans’ eating habits (a serving of ice cream, for example, has gone from a half cup to two-thirds of a cup). Also new, for bottled drinks up to 20 ounces, the serving size is the entire bottle. This addresses a real problem Cheskin had with the old panel. “Many people would drink an entire juice container and assume the calories listed were for the container, though the figure might have been based on a serving size of only 40 percent of the bottle,” he says. “So, unless you are reading closely, you were ingesting over twice as many calories as you thought.”

2 / Fat-Free

Calories from fat are no longer provided. “In older days of nutrition labeling, fat was emphasized: How much fat are you getting? Now it’s more about how many calories you’re getting.”

3 / "Added Sugars" Added

The FDA says it is advisable that no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories come from added sugar. “Added sugar would be what’s not naturally in the product,” Cheskin says. “A piece of fruit has no added sugar and naturally has fructose instead of sucrose. Most processed foods don’t have a whole lot of natural sugar. It would be added sugar, usually highfructose corn syrup or something. You really want to minimize this sugar, and this makes it much easier.”

4 / Nutrient Shuffle

Vitamin D and potassium data are now required on the label, while listing the amounts of vitamins A and C has gone from mandatory to voluntary. “Most Americans get enough vitamin A and C, so they are not as much of an issue. Potassium is important for blood pressure control, and we often don’t get enough. It’s mostly in fruits and vegetables rather than processed foods. Vitamin D is also low in the typical American diet. There are very few foods that naturally have a lot of vitamin D, so it’s usually added.

5 / "Calories a Day" Simplified

The footnote—how the FDA referred to unchanging reference information at the very end of the panel (on labels large enough to include it)—listed the recommended daily amounts of fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and fiber for 2,000 and 2,500 calorie-a-day diets—essentially, for women and men. Much of it is going away, save for an explanation that the daily value figures refer to someone requiring 2,000 calories a day. “A person’s daily caloric needs can vary from 1,200 to 3,000 calories or more depending on their age, weight, and how physically active they are. Maybe it’s just easier to think about if it’s one number for everyone. And it’s probably better from a public policy point of view to go on the low end for how many calories we’re telling people they need since obesity is such a problem,” Cheskin says. One quick daily-calories formula for moderately active people is to multiply body weight by 16.

Fast Fat Facts

There are good and bad fats.
TRUE, says Cheskin. Fats are an essential part of our diet for energy, vitamin and mineral absorption, proper cell development—a host of things. Generally speaking, unsaturated fats—both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated—are the good fats. Saturated fats, on the other hand, should be limited.

Trans fats are the worst, right?
TRUE. Very true. While small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in some foods, most are man-made. They have no health benefits and have been linked to greater risks of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. By 2020, manufacturers will be forbidden to add partially hydrogenated oils—the main source of added trans fats—to food.

Yikes. Well, until then, as long as the nutrition facts panel lists 0 grams of trans fat per serving, one can be assured of not ingesting any of this nasty stuff, right?
FALSE. As long as the serving size contains less than a half gram of trans fat, manufacturers are allowed to round down to zero. If you eat multiple servings of such products, you could end up ingesting appreciable amounts of trans fats. If you see 0 trans fat on the nutrient panel on a bag of chips but see any partially hydrogenated oils among the ingredients, there are trans fats lurking within.

Good or bad, it’s important to limit the percentage of daily calories we get from fat.
FALSE. That was once the thinking. Today, the total number of calories consumed daily is more important than the source of the calories. The new nutrition facts panel no longer breaks out calories from fat.

I’ve heard that omega-3 fatty acids are good. So omega-6 fatty acids are better, and omega-9 fatty acids are the best.
FALSE. Fatty acids are essential to good health and what’s important is the proportion of one to another. Generally, Americans can stand to get more omega-3, which is found in seafood, avocados, and certain seeds and dark green vegetables. Our diets usually include more than enough omega-6, and it can be unhealthy in excess. Omega-9 is less important and basically neutral in health benefits.

This product may contain traces of...

More than 170 different foods can cause allergic reactions, and it's estimated that as many as 50 million Americans have some form of food allergy. And allergy rates are surging. The CDC reports that from 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18 percent among children. Nearly 10,000 children a year are hospitalized for allergic reactions to food. Peanuts can be deadly for some. Wheat makes others sick. How can food labeling help folks negotiate their food allergies? We asked allergy specialist Jennifer Dantzer for advice.

What are the labeling requirements related to food allergies?
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act went into effect in 2006. It requires that manufacturers label the top eight allergens in plain English: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soy. They have to be listed somewhere on the package—it could be within the ingredient list or at the bottom of it. They don’t have to include other things that people can be allergic to, such as sesame, which is another common allergen.

What about those vague warnings such as “May contain traces of …” or “This product was processed on equipment also used to …”?
Those are what we call precautionary statements. They’re completely optional and voluntary, and there are no laws governing what they mean or what risks are associated with one wording or the other.

So, what’s your advice here?
We generally recommend that patients with known allergies avoid any food with their allergens listed in a precautionary statement.

Any other recommendations for folks with food allergies?
Just make sure to read the label of every product you buy every time you buy it because ingredients do change and packaging changes. We’ve had people who had long bought the same granola bars or the same waffles, and then the company decided to change things.

Ethical Eating

What to consider if you’re considering animal welfare while shopping for dinner

The “battery cage,” a device that confines egg-laying hens to an area smaller than a sheet of notebook paper, was invented in the 1940s. It was in keeping with the ongoing trend in American agriculture to raise ever more animals— chickens, as well as cows, hogs, and just about everything else—in ever more concentrated numbers and confined areas. This industrial approach to farming has been a boon to consumers in the form of cheaper meat, egg, and dairy prices. It’s one of the reasons (along with breeding) that chicken, after accounting for inflation, costs less today than in the 1970s. Eggs, too.

But you can’t help but have noticed a backlash against so-called Big Ag these days, as some consumers begin to look beyond pocketbook concerns to consider the quality of life animals lead on the modern farm. There are also larger concerns, such as environmental issues, motivating some to avoid “factory farmed” food (Google “poop lagoon”). Further, to keep animals healthy in crowded conditions many growers turn to antibiotics. “Eighty percent of antibiotics in this country are used in farm animals because of how they’re raised,” says Alan Goldberg, founding director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins. “The health implications for that really are staggering in how this can lead to resistant bacteria.”

Another problem, says Goldberg, is that commonly used terms like “humanely raised” are often self-defined and often don’t mean anything. “There are lots of labels and certifications that, unless you go into their websites, you can’t find out what they’re basing them on,” Goldberg says.

Instead, Goldberg says to look for foods with labels that say Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, or those marked with the 5-Step Animal Welfare Program, run by Global Animal Partnership. “If you see these certifications, you know the animal welfare standards are very acceptable,” he says. “They raise the likelihood that the chicken that laid those eggs had a pretty good life.”

Are the meat and eggs of pasture-raised animals healthier?
Generally, yes. Analysis shows that meat from animals raised in pasture and enjoying a more natural diet (as opposed to standing around eating grain in a feed lot) has more antioxidants and vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and other “good fats,” while being leaner overall. A Cambridge University study found that eggs from pastured hens had more vitamin E and omega-3s than those of caged birds.

Creature Comforts?

Sorting through animal welfare claims

Animal Welfare Approved
Guarantees animals are raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent farm using sustainable practices. Audits farms to ensure humane production, transport, and slaughter practices.

Certified Humane
Works to improve the lives of farm animals by driving consumer demand for kinder and more responsible farm animal practices. Certifies producers who meet a list of animal care standards, including adequate space, quality feed, and environmentally friendly production and processing.

Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Program
International organization of farmers, scientists, retailers, manufacturers, and animal advocates that certifies farms and ranches that meet a checklist of five standards covering health, natural living environments, and emotional well-being of the animal.

Humanely Raised, Sustainably Raised, Raised with Care, and other animal welfare claims.
There is no standard or legal definition for these terms, and the USDA requires that additional information about the term and how it's defined be on the label—usually linked to the claim by an asterisk or other symbol.

Cage Free.
Seen on egg cartons, it simply means egg-laying hens are not held in restrictive “battery cages.” But it does not mean the birds aren’t raised in extremely confined surroundings. “Some of these cage-free situations still have so many chickens packed into a large house that, as one of my colleagues likes to say, ‘They are free to range as long as they know how to line dance,’” says Goldberg. Also, chickens raised for meat are never caged so there’s no point for this to appear on a package.

Free Range.
Seen mostly on poultry products, this term implies that the birds spent some time outdoors, but there is no legal definition or standard.

Pasture Raised.
Supposed to denote that the animals spent time grazing on grass. The label must include additional specifics (usually in fine print). USDA organic beef and dairy cows must spend at least 120 days a year grazing.

Grass Fed.
Seen on beef and milk packaging, the term (as of 2016) is no longer defined by the USDA. Third parties with certified grass-fed labels include the American Grassfed Association and A Greener World (AGW).

Stamps of Approval

USDA Organic
This label means that the producer has completed a government certification process that includes site visits and annual inspections. Among the core requirements: Produce must be grown and processed without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, irradiation, and genetic engineering (non-GMO). Meat and eggs must come from animals whose feed meets these standards. Antibiotics or growth hormones cannot be given to the animals.

Non-GMO Project Verified
GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that certifies that foods do not contain any organisms that have been modified via genetic engineering. This does not mean that the foods are organic. Also, notes Goldberg, while there may be multiple reasons why someone might want to avoid buying GMO products, health risks from eating them, such as their being potentially carcinogenic, shouldn’t be one: “Some call them ‘Frankenfoods,’ but there is no scientific reason that I have seen published anywhere that says that GMOs produce a health risk," he says.

Fair Trade/Certified Fair Trade
Fair trade is a social and mercantile movement that works to improve the trading conditions for farmers, producers, and craftspeople in developing countries. Issues include assuring adequate compensation, safe working conditions, and sustainability. Goldberg offers one caveat: “Fair trade only looks at the primary ingredient, and that the people who produce that primary ingredient are properly paid. ... It doesn’t say a lot about anything post that major ingredient.”

Fair for Life This European- based agency certifies brands that commit to fair labor practices throughout the production and sales process, including confirming traceability of all goods.

Meaningless or Misleading Terms

Marketers like to use the following terms on packaging. Maybe you shouldn’t believe the hype.

Natural or All-Natural.
The FDA has the most loosey-goosey definition of “natural,” and it doesn’t exclude ingredients grown with pesticides or products shot full of high-fructose corn syrup. They really are no more a reflection of how a food was produced than milk carton graphics depicting smiling cows in a green field before a red barn.

Low Fat.
Yes, the FDA defines how much fat a product may contain to display this wordage. Just don’t go thinking this also means low calorie, as some processed foods—especially baked goods—making this claim are loaded with sugar and veritable “calorie bombs,” fat filled or not.

No Added Hormones.
This is meaningless on chicken, eggs, and pork because the FDA prohibits the use of growth hormones with chickens and pigs. (Cows and sheep are the only livestock that can be given hormones to boost growth and/or milk production.)

All-Vegetarian Diet.
You might see this on chicken and egg packaging. Thing is, chickens are not natural vegetarians (they love bugs), and a diet of corn and soy is pretty much par for the course at all large poultry facilities.

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Folks diagnosed with celiac disease need to stay clear of it. More and more, others have come to feel gluten is problematic for them as well. This label might be helpful on products that traditionally contain gluten, such as breads, that were processed to remove the gluten or have employed substitute grains. But when you see it on inherently gluten-free products—from rice to chicken to bottled water—you know the packager is just jumping on the dietary buzzword bandwagon.

Simply means "made with more than one grain," some of which might be highly refined. It’s not to be confused with the healthy, high-fiber benefits of labels reading “100 percent whole grain” or “100 percent whole wheat.”

Dolphin Safe or Friendly.
een on tuna cans—and who wants to hurt Flipper? “What it means is that they’re doing their best to avoid dolphins and that’s great and laudable, but everyone has to do that,” says Ryan Bigelow of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. “It’s a little bit like saying ‘this car has seatbelts.’” More meaningful on tuna cans is “pole caught” or “pole and line caught,” a targeted fishing system that spares not only dolphins but most bycatch.

Shade Grown.
Seen on coffee, it implies that the contents were grown in a manner that preserved the native tree canopy to the benefit of wildlife; there are no standards and no verification process for this claim.

chicken with food labels on it
Pui Yan Fong

Other Featured Articles

  • First, Ask the Question
    The effects of physical abuse can lead to serious chronic health issues long after the bumps and bruises have healed.
  • Too Much of a Good Thing?
    If you’re over the age of 40 and possess any risk factors for heart disease, you could be prescribed a statin. Here’s what to consider first.
  • Fear Factor
    Rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, chills, dizziness, chest pain: It just might be a panic attack.