Your Grocery Glossary

Anna Karanina C. Tan, RN  @AnnaTantrum
May 06, 2016  | Last Updated: May 06, 2016
17 May 2013, Germany --- Woman's hands holding heart shaped potao --- Image by © Lisa und Wilfried Bahnmüller/Westend61/Corbis

Today’s food consumerism is definitely not what it used to be 10 years ago. Whether for good or bad, much of the food that we enjoy today we owe to some very cool advancements in science and technology. Although large commercial food chains and manufacturers are still very much in business, recent surveys show a steadily climbing number of adult Americans practicing more health-conscious eating habits.

While, of course, any shift towards a healthier lifestyle is generally a good thing, more recent and larger consumer studies found that a considerable chunk of people from all over the globe have doubts about the food health information made available to them. Just because a certain food chain or product screams “organic,” “fresh,” alongside other heavily-hyped terms, does not necessarily mean you’re in the clear to consume it regularly or in large quantities.

In fact, by the end of this post, you may realize that most of what people know about food labels is riddled with inaccuracies, and that making healthier food choices does require a bit of thinking. OK, it requires a lot of thinking – oftentimes an amount most consumers do not have time for when deciding where or what to eat. Hence, the importance of a better understanding of what all these healthy-sounding food labels on attractive packaging really mean.


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Organic or USDA Organic

This is the highest-regulated term to grace food items. It essentially means at least 95 percent of ingredients were organically produced, with the remaining 5 percent belonging to a USDA-approved list. This also means the product is free of antibiotics, pesticides, growth hormones, sewage sludge-based fertilizers, petroleum, or any ionizing radiation, and bioengineering.

Organic products comply with strict federal regulation standards, which may explain the higher price point. The only difference having the USDA label makes is, it certifies the producer has met the USDA’s three-year pesticide-free standard.

There is also a difference with “Made with organic ingredients.” This means the item is made of at least 70 percent organic ingredients, and that none of its components went through any radiation or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Natural or All-natural

Unfortunately, this label is regulated pretty loosely, as it only means the food does not contain any artificial coloring, flavors, or anything synthetic. It’s also worth mentioning that even though “all-natural” sounds better, it’s no different than plain old “natural.”

Cage-free, Free range, and Pasture Raised or Pastured

This is where technicalities really come into play. “Cage-free,” commonly claimed by eggs and poultry, literally means the birds were not kept in cages. This may sound like a nice upgrade, but it only means they live in a “roomy” box – which is on average a square foot. These birds are also not required to be kept outdoors.

What you’re probably looking for is “Free range”, as it means the animals were not only cage-free, but were raised with access to the outdoors. Oftentimes, however, “outdoors” generally means an open barn door that leads to a small, fenced in, concrete or dirt area. The ideal image of animals grazing freely in a field falls under the labels “Pasture raised” and “Pastured.”


Before one decides to spend a bit more on gluten-free food, the question “What is gluten to begin with?” must be answered. Gluten, in a nutshell, is a protein primarily found in wheat, barley, and rye that is responsible for that thick, stretchy, and spongy consistency in bread, pizza, soups, and sauces. In one word, it is an additive.

For the most part, it is only ever a real problem for individuals with certain digestive tract disorders (such as celiac disease ), but a growing body of evidence suggests all this gluten in the average person’s diet may be one of the factors behind the rising number of cases of digestive disorders. But before you go gluten-free, keep in mind that when the manufacturer takes gluten away, other potentially harmful flavor and texture enhancers will take its place.

Grass-fed and Vegetarian-fed

We are not only what we eat, but we are also what we eat eats. Today’s standard fare supermarket meat was raised on feedlot – a mixture of corn, supplements, and hormones – designed to greatly economize raising the livestock. Forcing a grain diet on animals born to be grass-fed alters their digestive system, which calls for the use of antibiotics in order to prevent disease. Yummy.

When it comes to beef, spend a little more and go for the “grass-fed” stuff, which also boast lower fat content, and higher antioxidant and omega-3 fatty acid levels. For poultry, eggs, and pork, you may opt for “vegetarian-fed” just to be sure these animals did not eat other animals.

Whole Grain or Whole Wheat, and Multi Grain

We can get “multi-grain” out of the way quick because it only really means more than one kind of grain was used to make the product. What a health-conscious person is looking for is the word “whole,” which means the grains or wheat used did not undergo any processing or refinement (Remember, refined sugars are the enemy!). The process retained the outermost, nutrition-packed parts of the grain or wheat.

Low fat and Non-fat

What most consumers fail to realize, when they keep opting for reduced-fat products, is that fat contributes a lot to food’s flavor and satiety. Any reduction in fat content, means the producer may resort to other enhancers to maintain quality. Notice how the sodium and sugar content is higher in reduced fat items?

Committing to more health-conscious eating is one of the best gifts you can give yourself, as nutrition is one of the foundations of disease prevention. As with anything, take time to read the fine print behind bold food labels, as you might be eating more harm than good.


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