Savvy Shopper

What 9 Different Food Labels Mean

Savvy Shopper

Blane Stoddart II, Staff Writer

You’re standing in the grocery store, trying to decide which peanut butter to buy. Organic? All natural? To help you figure out what all these different terms mean, we’ve created a guide so that you’ll be the best-informed shopper in the aisle.


To be designated as organic by the USDA, a food must contain at least 95% pure organic ingredients. An organic ingredient is one that was grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, meaning that the farmers used methods such as crop rotation and natural compost or manure instead.

Processed foods can be labeled organic as long as they don’t contain any artificial ingredients.


The DNA of seeds can be altered in a lab so that the crops will have certain characteristics, such as being larger, sweeter, or pest-resistant. The term non-GMO means that a product was made without any ingredients that have been modified in this way.


Foods that have this label can be very misleading. A survey found that 62% of customers tend to seek out products with this label, and these customers often believe that “all natural” foods contain no pesticides or antibiotics. But most of the time, that isn’t the case. There is little government regulation for this term, therefore it can be applied to products that have genetically modified ingredients or were grown with pesticides.


Seen on egg cartons, this label indicates that the hens were given outdoor access and 108 square feet of space apiece. When it comes to humane animal treatment, this is the gold standard.


Another egg carton label, this one guarantees that the hens were given access to the outdoors and at least two square feet of space per hen. This is less than the generous 108 square feet for a pasture-raised hen, but still more than the 0.46 square feet allotted for a caged bird.

100% Whole Grain

Products with this label contain 100% whole grain or have whole grain as their first ingredient. A refined grain has had its germ and bran removed, leaving only the endosperm, while a whole grain still has all its nutritious parts.

Low Sodium

This label means the product contains less than 140 mg of sodium per serving, which is a small fraction of the recommended maximum of 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

Sugar Free

Don’t be fooled by this label. Just because a food has this label doesn’t mean it has no sugar: foods with less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving can still be listed as having 0 grams. Also, sugar free products often have artificial sweeteners, which aren’t necessarily better for you than real sugar.


No sugars or artificial sweeteners have been added to this product (hooray), however the product may still include natural, unprocessed sugars.

The product marketers can no longer fool you now that you are up-to-date on the meaning of nine of today’s most common food labels. You, savvy shopper, can now select your peanut butter with confidence.