No matter which political camp you align with, I think we can all agree with the First Lady, who once said something like it shouldn’t take a thesaurus, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to read a food label. I’m paraphrasing here, but it is ON POINT.

Even those of us with degrees in nutrition are baffled by some of the regulations that haven’t caught up with modern science or today’s shoppers. Frozen entrées full of white rice? Healthy! A grab-and-go bar chock full of nuts? Apparently, not! At least according to federal regulations.

Natural, organic, and non-GMO are a few other terms that mystify shoppers. Let’s set the record straight.

Natural

According to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey, 59% of shoppers check that the products they are buying are natural. This same survey found that for the vast majority of shoppers, foods smacked with the words “natural” imply that they’re grown without pesticides, don’t contain artificial ingredients, and are GMO-free. News flash: Outside of the meat and poultry, the label is meaningless. And even with respect to meat and poultry, it doesn’t mean what you think.

All natural meat or poultry simply means there are no artificial ingredients and that the food was minimally processed. It does not mean that the animals were raised without antibiotics, were never given growth hormones, or that their feed was free of GMOs. It does not take into account farming practices at all.

Frankly, I find the natural definition pretty lame. At Luvo, we’re concerned about antibiotic use in animals. The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture have made us vulnerable to infections that—once routine and easily treatable—now require more aggressive therapies. That’s why we always insist on antibiotic-free meats. I take this approach at home, too.

The next time you see the term 100% natural chicken on a frozen entrée or in the butcher case, consider whether it meets your definition of all natural.

Organic

The organic claim rates lower on shoppers’ priority list than the natural label, according to the same CR survey. Yet the organic label is strictly regulated. Foods labeled organic are vetted by a certifying agency to ensure that they don’t contain industrial pesticides or synthetic fertilizers; that farming practices conserve resources and are mindful of biodiversity; the animals were raised without growth hormones or antibiotics; and all ingredients are GMO-free. Seeing the USDA organic logo on food is a tip-off that it was made in accordance with these strict standards.

Non-GMO

Let’s start with the definition of GMO. Genetically modifying food is a process of taking genes from one species and introducing them in another species—generally for some desired trait, like pest resistance. There are pros and cons to genetically engineering food, and much has been written about this. The Non-GMO Project provides a list of high risk crops and ingredients that are commonly derived from GMO crops. They run a rigorous verification process so if you’re looking to avoid GMOs, you can trust their seal. As I mentioned, foods labeled organic are, by definition, also non-GMO. As an aside, non-GMO foods aren’t always organic.

Do you have labeling questions? What terms always trip you up? Let us know in the comment section below,  we’re here to help!

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