Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Food labels: How to navigate the grocery aisles

8/27/2020 by Victoria Vasquez and Michaeleen Burroughs, RDN, LD


We all get that feeling of confusion when staring blankly at the grocery shelves trying to figure out what item to purchase among the vast options available. Do I want the natural version or lower sodium? Organic or non-GMO? What kind of eggs come from the most humane farms?

Labels on food packaging can be unclear and misleading. By understanding what some of their claims mean, you can make more informed choices and have confidence the next time you revisit those shelves.

Organic: The organic label addresses the type of farming practice used to grow food or ingredients. Organic food is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetically-engineered crops, and antibiotics or growth hormones in livestock. Although synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited in organic practices, natural chemicals commonly found in nature are allowed in production. Unless the label explicitly states "100% Organic," the organic label only requires that 95 percent of the ingredients in the product be certified organic. While most assume organic is the healthier option, research is inconclusive if these practices produce more nutritious food. If trying to eat healthy, don’t feel compelled to pay the higher prices for organic foods, as conventional versions can be just as nutritious!

Non-GMO: Many people confuse "non-GMO" to mean the same thing as "organic." While all organic food is non-GMO, not all non-GMO foods are organic. Non-GMO is a term used to identify foods that do not have genetically-modified organisms. GMOs are typically used to better harvests by selecting traits in crops that are desirable, such as being resistant to certain pests. While some believe GMO foods are unsafe to consume, research does not support this claim; however, long-term safety of these foods is unknown.

Natural: The use of the term "natural" on food products does not have a formal definition yet, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has noted the meaning to include foods that contain no artificial or synthetic ingredients, which include color additives. Although natural foods are free from artificial ingredients, it does not address whether a food contains pesticides or has been subject to irradiation or pasteurization. 

Grass-fed beef: When purchasing beef, this grass-fed claim often evokes a feeling of a higher quality and healthier product. However, the term "grass-fed" may not mean that the cattle were fed on grass for their entire lives. All beef are fed grass up until the final months before harvest, at which time they may be switched to a grain-based diet to reach goal weight at a faster pace. Products that state the beef is "grass-finished" mean the cattle grazed on grass prior to harvest, but can still be misleading in the sense that these cattle may still have consumed grain at some point. Only products with a "100 percent grass-fed" label come from cattle that consumed an all-exclusive grass diet. Neither claim addresses or prohibits the use of antibiotics or hormones during production.

Cage-free vs. free-range vs. pasture-raised: All these phrases evoke pastoral scenes, but they don’t mean the same thing.

  • Cage-free pertains to chickens that are not housed in individual cages, but can still be kept in close quarters with one another and are not required to have outdoor access.
  • Cage-free is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but the use of the claim "free-range" is only regulated for poultry, not eggs. This term generally means the hens have access to outdoor space, but the size of the outdoor space is often not defined and does not have to be a field or pasture.
  • Free-range chickens may be able to exit and enter the outdoor space as they please, but does not ensure they were outdoors at all.
  • Pasture-raised is not a term regulated by the USDA and has come to mean the hens have access to a pasture to scratch and peck. The size of the pasture is not defined unless the claim has been humane-certified, which means the pasture has to be a minimum of 108 square feet. Similar to grass-fed claims, these claims pertain to chickens and does not address hormones, antibiotics, or the diet.

The bottom line with food label claims is that we shouldn’t let them stress us out on our next trip to the grocery store. Many of these claims are intended to help companies sell product and provide little insight into the health and nutrition of the food. Next time you feel paralyzed in the grocery aisles by the many claims screaming out to you, know that it’s all based on preference and no claim is superior to the other.

A registered dietitian (RDN) is your go-to for advice and guidance on understanding how a particular food could impact health and how it might best "fit" in meeting your nutrition needs. Some grocery store chains hire RDNs to serve their clients to help them sort out all these claims. Encourage folks to ask at their local grocery store for guidance from the store's RDN - nobody should have to face the aisles alone!

Victoria Vasquez is a Mayo Clinic dietetic intern and graduated from Montclair State University with her Bachelor's in Nutrition and Food Science. She hopes to pursue a career as a clinical dietitian. Her areas of interest include critical care and nutrition support.

Michaeleen Burroughs, RDN, LD, has worked at Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson in Family Medicine for 20 years. She currently helps patients at Mayo Family Clinics Northwest, Southeast and Kasson, and Baldwin Family Medicine and Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM). Her areas of interest are diabetes and child and adult weight management.