7 Common Food Label Terms and What They Really Mean

By Britni Vincent, RD, LD
December 7, 2015


Does looking at a food label make your head spin? Non-GMO, organic, natural—you might be thinking: what does that even mean? Going to the grocery store nowadays is not an easy feat. There are thousands of products to choose from and it’s difficult to know if the terms on labels are buzzwords/marketing lingo or if they actually make the food healthier. Well, I’m going to make it easier for you—here are definitions of 7 common terms used on food labels.

1. Non-GMO

GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, which refers to any food that has been modified at the gene level. Many GMO foods have been sprayed with Roundup®, which contains a chemical called glyphosate. Non-GMO means it’s a food that hasn’t been altered at the genetic level.

2. Natural

The FDA hasn’t developed a definition for the term natural, so it means nothing; it’s a buzzword.

3. Gluten Free

A food that doesn’t contain any type or crossbreeds of wheat, rye or barley. If the food has been processed to remove gluten it needs to contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten to be labeled gluten free.

4. USDA Organic or Certified Organic

The contents are 95% or more certified organic, which means the ingredients are free of synthetic additives such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers and dyes. Organic food must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation or genetic engineering. These standards cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives.

5. Farm-Raised Fish

Fish that is raised in tanks or enclosures.

6. Wild-Caught Fish

Fish that come from seas, rivers and other natural bodies of water.

7. Grass Fed

An animal that has only eaten grass and forage after weaning. The animal can’t be fed grain or grain byproduct and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

CommonFoodLabelTerms_Veggies-Hummus.jpgBeware of sugar

Instead of buying gluten free crackers to dip in hummus, dip fresh veggies. Another naturally gluten free snack option: put peanut butter on cut up apples (rather than on organic toast).

Another thing to remember—just because a product is in the “natural” section at the grocery store or at a co-op doesn’t make the food healthy! Yes, looking for non-GMO is a good idea or buying gluten free is important if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, but that doesn’t mean the product is good for you. Many products that are labeled non-GMO, organic or gluten free are also high in sugar. For example, 11 organic, non-GMO corn chips contain 4.5 teaspoons of sugar. And let’s be honest, most of us are not going to stop at 11 chips, especially if there’s guacamole to dip them in! Another example: A piece of whole grain Udi’s® gluten free bread contains 19 ingredients and 11 grams of carbohydrates—that’s 2¾ teaspoons of sugar for just one small piece of bread.

At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we recommend eating foods that don’t have labels and are natural (without needing a “natural” label) in their original state. Keep this in mind the next time you’re reading product labels.

  • Instead of buying gluten free crackers to dip in hummus, how about some fresh veggies?
  • Instead of putting peanut butter on a piece of organic toast, how about spreading it on cut apples?
  • In the mood for chicken nuggets? Rather than buying frozen, gluten-free, organic ones at the store, try making your own using our Healthy Chicken Nuggets recipe.

For more information listen to our podcast: Understanding Organics, GMOs, and Wild-Caught vs. Farm-Raised Fish. If grocery shopping still seems overwhelming, watch for the next grocery store tour near you.

About the author

Britni is a licensed dietitian at Nutritional Weight & Wellness. Britni once struggled with insomnia, acne and regular migraines that would force her to retreat to a dark room for relief. She tried several different approaches to feel better before she realized her diet was the culprit and changed her eating to a more balanced approach. As a result, her insomnia and acne are gone, and she rarely has migraines. Britni is a registered and licensed dietitian through the Minnesota Board of Nutrition and Dietetics. She received her B.S. in dietetics from the University of St. Thomas and completed her dietetic internship at the University of Iowa. She has experience in nutrition counseling, leading seminars and motivating clients of all ages to make changes.

View all posts by Britni Vincent, RD, LD




Julie Hoffman
Hi Britni,
Have you scheduled a grocery store tour for this spring yet?
April 24, 2017 at 9:18 pm


Nothing is scheduled at this moment, but you can always check here for upcoming tours. Stay tuned! http://www.weightandwellness.com/classes/grocery-store-tours/ 

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