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Food labels: Natural? Organic? What does it mean?

Shoppers are inundated with a lot of information on packaging these days.

Information is good, but it can be confusing. It’s important to remember that brands and suppliers will often put labels on packaging to attract your attention in an effort to sell their products.

Let’s try and make sense of what labels mean and which are just about the marketing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture — or USDA — regulates the labeling of our red meat, poultry and pork products.

Can you guess which of these labels are allowed on packaging?

  • Organic — Yes. However, it is only allowed if the product is certified by the USDA’s National Organic Program. If “organic” is used by a brand or supplier on labeling without being a part of the USDA Organic program, fines will be assessed. 
  • Chemical-free — No. This is not allowed to be used. 
  • Antibiotic-free and/or no antibiotics — Not exactly. The accepted verbiage is “no antibiotics added.” This can be used for meat, pork and poultry but only if sufficient documentation is available to show that the animals were raised without antibiotics. 
  • Hormone-free — It depends. Hormones are not allowed in the raising of chickens or hogs (pork) anyway, so if a brand or supplier uses this verbiage it must also note that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” For beef, the accepted verbiage is “No hormones administered,” but the supplier must be able to provide proof. 
  • Natural — Yes. This is a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and that is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

Remember, sugar, salt and oils are natural ingredients, so it is acceptable to have these as ingredients in products labeled “natural”.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration is accepting public comments about the definition of the word “natural.”

The bottom line

Be a smart shopper and make sure you know what those terms on the label actually mean.

Talk to Leah

Leah McGrath is the corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets. Follow her @InglesDietitian. Contact her at, 800-334-4936 or at