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Michelle Warner

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Tricky Health Food Terms

Posted on October 4th, 2010

Monday Morsel

sometimes random.
sometimes deep.
just a little something
to begin your week.


While watching the Bear’s game last evening with my husband, I laughed out loud when a certain commercial popped up on the screen. The commercial’s content wasn’t necessarily funny; I couldn’t believe the irony in viewing the commercial when I was half-way through writing this blog post.

The commercial boasted about the new Sierra Mist “Natural” soda. Could there really be such a thing? In all of my reading on healthy living, a common suggestion was to steer clear of soda. And now there was a natural version?

In all fairness, I read up on Sierra Mist’s new recipe and brand this morning, and the company is trying to provide their consumers with more natural food. I appreciate that many food manufacturers are replacing their ingredients with healthier options.

However, what do all of these new food branding terms mean? What does “Natural” mean when it’s slapped on a food label?

I researched the criteria relating to several of these food branding terms in an attempt to understand them. Below is what I found:


I was surprised to find that using the term “natural” is not regulated by the government with respect to any food other than poultry and meat. Natural mainly means that the product is minimally processed and free of artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.

Whole Food’s website says:

“’Natural’ often is misrepresented in product labeling to imply ‘healthful,’ but ‘natural’ only means that the product has undergone minimal processing. Unlike products that are certified organic, natural products have no certification or inspection system. Also, “natural” does not necessarily relate to growing methods or the use of preservatives.”

Author of Read It Before You Eat It, Bonnie Taub-Dix, says, “The USDA created this label for meat and poultry; it has not been defined by the FDA. If you see it on anything other than meat and poultry, it has virtually no significance. Sugar is natural, so it’s OK to label something with a lot of sugar as ‘all natural.’”

100% Organic

Make sure you read the labels when buying organic and also make sure to notice the USDA’s Organic seal guaranteeing that the product meets the organic standards. If it says 100% organic, you can be sure that the product contains organic ingredients, and contains no antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering, radiation, or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Contrast this with the term “organic,” which means the product contains 95% organic ingredients. Additionally, the phrase “made with organic ingredients” means the product contains 70% organic ingredients.

Author Bonnie Taub-Dix also had something to say about the organic food term: “Many people feel ‘organic’ equals ‘healthy.’ Don’t be fooled. ‘Organic’ only reveals how it was grown and processed; it doesn’t communicate anything about the product’s nutrients or whether or not it was grown locally…The organic versions of some produce are better because inorganic produce is more likely to be contaminated with pesticides.” To reiterate, I believe the most important foods to buy organic are animal products and the “Dirty Dozen” produce.


I remember when I first saw the label non-GMO on packaging and wondered what it meant. I have come to understand GMO stands for genetically-modified organisms, which basically means the organisms used in many food products have been genetically engineered in a laboratory. On the Non-GMO Project’s website, they explain GMO’s this way: “This relatively new science allows DNA from one species to be injected into another species in a laboratory, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”

As I researched this, I learned that October is Non-GMO month with a special day on October 10th. For more information click here.

0g Trans Fat

It is also interesting to note that 0g Trans Fat is not really 0g Trans fat. I was surprised to understand that the FDA regulates that manufacturers can include “0g Trans Fat” on their product as long as it contains less than 0.5 trans fat per serving. I read that if the words “partially hydrogenated oil”, “hydrogenated oil”, or “shortening” are listed on the ingredients, the product does contain trans fat.  This is another reason to study up on the manufacturers’ principles and values.

Free Range

The USDA defines “free range poultry” as chickens that are given access to the outdoors (whether they do venture outside is a whole other story, and it is important to check with the manufacturer/farm to find out about the chickens’ living conditions). Experiments and research show that the benefits of free range conditions include greater nutritional value versus chickens living in confinement, including eggs with higher levels of Omega-3s.

Cage Free

Surprisingly, the USDA doesn’t regulate the “cage free” term on poultry packaging. The difference between cage-free and free range poultry is that cage-free mainly means the hens roamed freely in large barns but not given access to the outdoors. Chickens living cage free is still better than living in confinement but not as beneficial as living in a free range environment. (I recommend viewing the documentary Food Inc. if you haven’t. After viewing this documentary, I have a much better idea in my head of what a confined chicken coop may look like.)


Gluten is a protein found in all forms of wheat, and some have a gluten-intolerance. I plan to devote an entire post to this in the future.

I am learning to read the packaging and do my research when I grocery shop to make sure that I am not misled by marketer’s labels. I encourage you to do the same!

For more information:

“A Closer Look at Natural Food Items” from the Kashi “Live it up Naturally” brochure

2 Comments on “Tricky Health Food Terms”

  • Alyssa Mezsick says:

    Hey Michelle! I used to be Alyssa Lugbill :) It’s been fun to stumble upon this website (via facebook) and discover how God has worked in your life since college days. I, too, have been on a journey and am SO THANKFUL to be where I am at 30; I wouldn’t go back to college days for anything! Anyway, today at the supermarket I read the following: Tyson “all natural” split chicken breasts on sale for $0.99/lb”. LOL!

  • michellewarner says:

    Alyssa! So wonderful to catch up! I would love to know more of what you’re up to these days! I have thought of you many times! Let’s stay in touch!! xo

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