Fast Casual reports that a recent review found that of all the new food and drink products that were introduced globally in 2008, 23% of them were labeled “natural,” “all natural,” “no additives/preservatives,” “organic,” or “whole grain.” In the U.S., that statistic is even higher – 33% of all new food and drinks made this claim, up 16% from 2007.

That sounds like good news, but is it? What do all of those labels mean, really? The problem with many of those labels is that there is no standards behind them.

There is a standard behind the organic label. The USDA certifies foods organic and anyone using that label must meet a set of fixed standards.

Those other labels have no standards behind them. The FDA did say something about the term natural in 1993. It said that they would not define the term “natural” and that it may be used as long as it is not misleading or the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

That’s pretty vague. Would it surprise you to know that a product can have partially hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup in it and still have a natural label on it? I can.

Whole grains are good, but a product can have a negligible amount and still be labeled “made with whole grains.” Bread that has bleached white flour as its main ingredient could be labeled “made with whole grains” as long as there was a small amount in it. It wouldn’t be very healthy however.

It seems that the manufacturers of food and drink products understand that people are looking for healthier foods and are putting them on the labels of many new the new products hitting the shelf. But, as consumers we need to read more than just the front of a package. We need to look at the nutrition label and ingredient list on the back, too. The things we find there may be surprising.

It’s great that we are becoming more desirous of healthy foods. But we can’t rely on manufacturers and marketers and advertisers to tell us what is healthy. We need to take it upon ourselves to know what is in our food.  

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

What does that healthy label mean?
More and more foods are boasting healthy labels. Does that mean more foods are being made healthy?