It’s all in the label

Demystifying food packaging for the consumer.

It’s all in the label

Every year we are overwhelmed with a multitude of popular food products and different terms and titles to describe them. Often, unclear definitions can lead to buyer confusion. Below are a few words that can help you when grocery shopping to understand the difference between food marketing terms to make healthier choices—and which terms won’t make much of a difference in your nutrition.

Processed and unprocessed

These terms can be misunderstood. A lot of us are under the impression that “processed” means foods that are unhealthy, carry empty calories and additives. There is also the impression that “unprocessed” foods are foods that are not canned, frozen or processed. Neither of these is entirely right. “According to a 2008 federal law, “processed” refers to food that has undergone a “change of character.” Examples include raw nuts (unprocessed) versus roasted nuts (processed); a head of lettuce (unprocessed) versus cut, pre-washed lettuce (processed).


Buying local refers to buying foods that are grown close to where you live, such as from local farmer’s markets. The idea of buying local is connected to a bigger idea of keeping our environment maintained and supporting local businesses. Still, even “local” can have a lot of different of definitions depending upon who you ask. 


There is no standard meaning of “whole foods,” but it’s a term buyers hear a lot. “Whole foods” is commonly talked about as foods that are not processed and do not have any added ingredients. By most definitions, whole foods include fresh produce, dairy, whole grains, meat and fish; meaning any food that appears in its most pure form with the least amount of processing possible. 


Of all these terms, “organic” has the most specific criteria and legal meaning. As defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods are produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with imitation ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. A government approved certifier must inspect the farm to ensure these standards are met. In addition to organic farming, there are USDA standards for organic handling and processing.

As a consumer, you’ll want to be certain that you are making informed decisions when grocery shopping. This is especially necessary when you’re trying to make positive, healthy changes to your diet. Michigan State University Extension advises that the best information on whether a food is healthy or not can be found on the Nutrition Facts label.

For more information about food labels, labeling guidance, policies and inspection methods visit the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service website at

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