The Ultimate Guide to Food Labels

Confused at the grocery store? We've got you covered.

close up of strawberry with several label stickers on it - organic, gluten free, locally grown, all natural, etc.

We know you're a savvy shopper who seeks out healthy food. Heck, that's why you come to EatingWell. But these days, even educated consumers can get stumped by the flurry of claims and food labels found on the front of packages (and distract you from the important stuff on the back, like the Nutrition Facts panel). Here are 38 common label terms you'll spot on boxes, bags and containers-and what they mean.

Nutrient Claims

Low Sodium: The food contains 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving.

Lightly Salted: The item contains 50% less sodium per serving than the standard version of that product.

Less Sodium: The item contains at least 25% less sodium per serving compared to the standard version of that product. This is also true for the terms "reduced sodium" and "lower sodium." Get our best Shopping Tips to Keep Sodium Down.

Excellent Source of: The item contains at least 20% of the Daily Value (DV) of the stated nutrient per serving. The same is true for the terms "rich" and "high in." For example: "calcium rich" and "high in calcium."

Good Source of: The item contains at least 10% of the DV of the stated nutrient per serving. The terms "fortified," "with added," "enriched" and "plus" indicate that the product has at least 10% more of the specified nutrient than a standard version of the product. For example: "vitamin D fortified," "with added vitamin D," "vitamin D enriched" and "plus vitamin D."


Organic: Produce that makes an organic claim or bears the USDA organic seal must meet USDA organic standards on practices like crop rotation, disease management, and fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use. Regulations do allow the use of some naturally occurring organic pesticides, though they're generally believed to be less harmful to human health and the environment than the synthetically derived ones. Organic standards do not allow genetic engineering (GMOs).

Certified Pesticide Residue Free: This seal verifies that the food was tested and found to have levels of pesticides below the Residue Free Certification Standard set by SCS Global Services, an independent certifying agency. (However it does not guarantee that the food was grown without the use of pesticides.) For most pesticides, the level is less than 0.01 parts per million-more stringent than what U.S. law requires, but not necessarily zero. This is different than the generic claim "pesticide free," which is not regulated or defined by the FDA. Not seeing this label? These Clean 15 foods have been found to regularly have the lowest levels of pesticide residues.

Locally Grown: The meaning of "local" isn't federally regulated, so there's no official meaning. That said, some states' farm programs have their own restrictions on how far a "local" food can travel from its origins, and some store chains and brands set their own standards. You can do a little online digging to find out what your state's rules are, or consult your supermarket manager.

Certified Biodynamic (Demeter USA): This seal confirms that a food or product was made in adherence to the Demeter biodynamic standards, which include all of the USDA organic standards and beyond, prohibiting some chemicals that are allowed in organic. It also has a stronger emphasis on encouraging biodiversity, requiring at least 10% of a farm's land to be unfarmed (such as grasslands, wetlands and forests).

More: What's the Difference between Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine?

Animal Products

Natural: This term means that the meat must contain no artificial ingredients or added color, and be only minimally processed (a vague term that the USDA defines as "processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product"). This definition only applies to meat and poultry, not to packaged goods like yogurt or bread.

Read on: The 5 Biggest Myths about "Natural" Meats

Organic: Organic meat must comply with USDA organic standards that include requiring animals to be raised with year-round access to the outdoors and not be "continuously confined." (Organic standards do allow farmers to keep animals inside or restrict outdoor access for specific conditions, like bad weather). There must be enough room for them to all feed "without crowding and without competition for food." Meat raised organically cannot be fed GMO feed. Use of antibiotics or hormones is also not permitted.

No Hormones: This means that your beef comes from cattle not raised with hormones. For chicken and pork, the term is moot, since federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising these animals. (Although you will often still see it on the label.)

More: Clean Eating Buyer's Guide to Beef

Not Treated with rBGH/rBST: Recombinant bovine somatotropin (aka recombinant bovine growth hormone is a hormone given to cows to increase milk production. The FDA considers "hormone-free" or "rBGH-free" claims to be false because all milk contains hormones-whether they're the cows' own hormones or those given to the animals-and has ruled that milk from treated cows is identical to milk from cows that haven't received hormones. There is some evidence that milk from treated cows has higher levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which encourages cell growth with possible cancer implications. However, the FDA has determined that this elevation was no higher than natural IGF-1 levels. (This conclusion is not universally accepted, and the European Union and Canada do not allow cows to be treated with these hormones.)

No Added Nitrates/Nitrites; Uncured: These terms are used on processed meats (bacon, hot dogs, etc.) and mean that the food was cured using a fruit or vegetable that's naturally high in nitrates, such as celery juice and beet or cherry powder-as opposed to the man-made versions of this preservative (sodium or potassium nitrate or nitrite). Studies have linked eating large amounts of processed meats with an increased risk of stomach and colorectal cancer. It's unclear if it's the added nitrates or something else in the processing, but according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, there's no evidence to suggest that products made with these natural versions are safer than conventional ones. (However, this isn't reason to fear whole produce rich in nitrates, like celery or beets, which do have health benefits in this form.) Plus check out more labels you'll find on hot dog packages.

Free Range: Animals have access to an outdoor area, but the USDA doesn't regulate how much room. For poultry, it also doesn't specify the amount of time they have outside. Cattle must have free access to outdoor space for at least 120 days a year. Find more labels pertaining to buying eggs and buying chicken, here.

Pasture-Raised: Animals are not continually confined indoors and spend some portion of their lives on pasture or with access to pasture. However, there is no standard definition for this practice (for instance, label-governing agencies have no definition for what a "pasture" is) nor is this definition verified by a third party or by on-farm inspection.

Animal Welfare Approved: Because the definition of free range and pasture raised is largely left up to the interpretation of meat and poultry producers, this additional certification from A Greener World has defined standards that are third-party verified. This have rules for pasture size and minimum duration of time spent outside. Other seals that indicate similar standards include "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" or "American Humane Certified."

Certified Grassfed: This label, verified by A Greener World, certifies that the animals were fed a 100% grass and forage diet with no grains. Animal products with this seal must also be Animal Welfare Approved.

American Grassfed: Seeing this label on meat (beef, goat, lamb, bison, sheep) and dairy products means that the animal had continuous access to pasture and was fed a diet entirely of grass and forage with no grains (like corn or soy) or animal byproducts allowed. Antibiotic and hormone administration is also prohibited under this label. It is verified by the American Grassfed Association.

USDA Process Verified: This certifies that producers that make a claim about a production process-such as "cage-free" or "no antibiotics"-have provided documents to prove it, and a USDA official conducted on-site inspections to verify it. The seal gives you extra reassurance that the producer's claim has backup-but it's only as meaningful as the claim itself. For example, seeing "cage-free" on a package of supermarket chicken wouldn't mean much, since chickens grown for meat aren't raised in cages anyway.

More: Antibiotic-Free Food Labels to Look For


Pole and Line Caught: Fish with this stamp were caught one at a time, minimizing the amount of unintended species that can wind up in nets, called bycatch. Most fish is caught commercially using the purse seine method: a large wall of netting is dropped around an entire school of fish and then drawn closed, catching everything that it surrounds-including unwanted bycatch like dolphins, sea turtles, seals and whales. By some estimates, bycatch amounts to 40% of the fish netted globally, the vast majority of which gets discarded.

ASC Certified: This label from the Aquaculture Stewardship Council means that the fish farm uses practices that minimize the impact on the local ecosystem and there are limits on the use of wild fish in feed.

Read on: How to Make Sustainable Seafood Choices at the Fish Market

Packaged Goods

No Sugar Added: This claim means the food contains no sugars that were added during processing or packing-including "sneaky" ones like concentrated fruit juice or dates-but it might still have artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols (such as sorbitol).

Unsweetened: The product contains no added sweeteners of any kind (even artificial sweeteners). Must read: A Glossary of Natural Sugars & Added Sugars

100% Juice: A beverage must fit one of two conditions to be "100% juice": It must either be only juice from fruits or vegetables, or it can be juice from concentrate that has been diluted with water to a level determined by the FDA. However, "100%" juice does not specify the type of fruit or vegetable that the juice comes from. It can contain multiple types of juices, not obviously displayed on the front of the packaging, like grape, apple or pear juice. For instance, a bottle of cranberry juice marked "100% juice" may be a blend of several juices, as opposed to 100% cranberry juice. Find out more about the ingredients in your juice.

Antioxidant-Rich: The FDA does regulate antioxidant claims, but food companies don't need to distinguish whether they're intrinsic or added. For instance, the bulk of the antioxidants in "antioxidant-rich" blueberry juice may come from added vitamin C.

Whole Wheat or Whole Grain: Products bearing either this claim or "made with whole wheat" or "made with whole grain" must contain at least some whole wheat or other whole grain; however, they may contain refined grains as well. (Bread, rolls, buns and macaroni products have a stricter standard: "whole wheat" versions of these products may not be made with refined wheat.) Read on: How to Buy the Healthiest Whole-Wheat Bread

"Whole Wheat Is the First Ingredient": This means that the first ingredient is whole wheat, but there may be refined grains in the product as well.

"100% Whole Wheat" or "100% Whole Grain": All of the wheat or grain must be whole. No refined grain can be used in this product.

Whole Grain seal: The Whole Grains Council has three versions of this yellow stamp. "100% Whole Grain" means that all of the grain in this product is whole and there is no refined grain. "50%+ Whole Grain" means that at least half of the grains in this product are whole, the rest are refined. "Whole Grain" means it has some whole grains (at minimum 8 grams per serving) but the majority of the grains are refined.

Multigrain: This term simply means that there are several different types of grains, but it does not tell you in what quantity or if they are whole grain or not. The same is true for products that list the number of grains, like "Seven Grain" bread.

Ancient Grain: This loosely describes a type of grain used in the product. It does not guarantee that a product is not also made with other grains or that the grains are whole. There is no official definition of ancient grains, but generally it refers to grains and seeds that have largely remained unchanged by breeding over time. Examples include einkorn, farro, spelt, black barley, red and black rice, blue corn, quinoa, teff, millet, sorghum, amaranth, buckwheat and wild rice.

Certified Gluten-Free: This claim, certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, means that the product was not made with a gluten-containing grain like wheat, spelt or barley (or processed in a facility that handles gluten). This is not the same as grain free. It could contain other grains that don't have gluten, such as buckwheat, rice or millet.

Want more? Get this Gluten-Free Foods List.

Natural: There is no formal definition of natural for packaged goods.

Must Read: What does "Natural" on Your Food Label Mean?

Bioengineered: This terms means that a product contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The USDA's GMO label law, which takes effect in January 2020, will require food companies to flag foods that have been "bioengineered" (aka genetically modified) by 2022. You might not always see a label, either; the law permits manufacturers to use digital links like smart codes, instead of stating it plainly on the package.

Non-GMO Project Verified: This is a third-party verified label that says that the product was made without ingredients that have been genetically modified.

Certified Plant-Based: This stamp from the Plant Based Foods Association means a food (say, tofu sausage) is 100 percent free of animal ingredients, but it doesn't apply to single-ingredient foods that are by definition only plants, like walnuts, oranges or broccoli.

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