Understanding Important Health Food Labels

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Common health food labels and what they really mean

I remember when I first started paying attention to the labels on the foods I was buying, I first felt completely overwhelmed. I saw words like “healthy” and “natural” and “organic” and I had no idea what any of those actually meant. I assumed that all of them meant that they were clean foods that were safe for me to eat, but I quickly learned that this was not always the case. It would have been so nice to know earlier that “natural” foods aren’t always natural at all, or that “Non-GMO” doesn’t always mean that a food is also free of chemicals.

In order to really have an understanding of the quality of the foods I was buying, I decided to do some research, and I then put together the following overview of what some of the more common terms actually mean. The intention in making this list is to share simple and straight-forward information in order for the terms to be understandable and clear. If you are interested in learning more, or if you are looking for more details, feel free to check out the additional resources provided at the end of this document.

◦ Organic- the USDA guidelines for organic food encompass a variety of restrictions, most notably that the items must be free from any chemicals (such as fertilizers or pesticides) and free of GMOS. Organic products tend to be more expensive, so it can be helpful to refer to the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” lists linked down below when deciding which foods to buy organic.

◦ Natural- this term can be misleading, as there are no actual guidelines that define what is and isn’t “natural”. Companies may use this label as a marketing strategy to get more individuals to buy their product rather than actually caring about what ingredients are being used. It is always best to look for another indicator that may suggest that the food is actually "natural", such as the organic food label.

◦ Certified naturally grown- this label refers to food items grown by local farmers who do not use GMOS or synthetic chemicals. They are different from certified organic products because they are peer-reviewed as a means to save time and money.

◦ Local- There are not always strict guidelines on what food is or isn’t local, however, local usually refers to foods that are made in the area in which is the product is being sold. If you want to ensure the food you are eating is local, going to a farmer's market or co-op can be a nice way to do this if there are some available in your area.

◦ Fair trade certified- this term means that social and environmental factors (such as fair pay for workers and sustainability) were taken into consideration during the process of producing the food item.

◦ Non-GMO Project Verified- this label indicates that a product has been tested and is virtually completely free from ingredients that contain GMOS (genetically modified organisms). An important thing to note with these labels is that it does not necessarily mean it is free from other chemicals that may have been used during the food production process. Again, looking out for the USDA organic label on these products is a great way to ensure your food is free from chemicals as well as GMOs.

Overall, buying organic, fair trade certified, and local (when available) is a great way to take a step towards a healthier life and a healthier planet.

Additional Resources:

◦ Information in this handout adapted from:


Dirty dozen list:


Clean fifteen:


More food labels explained:


USDA organic guidelines:


Certified naturally grown information:

https://www.cngfarming.org /

Fair trade products and additional information:


The Non-GMO Project:


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