Labeling Terms Decoded

February 13, 2018
| Created by Genevieve Daly, RDN, CD

Although food labels are helpful and necessary when purchasing food, they've also become an advertising space, leading to massive consumer confusion. Let's clear a few things up so you can feel more confident in the grocery aisle.


A Consumer Reports survey in 2014 found that two out of three respondents think believed foods labeled "natural" were produced without pesticides, GMOs, growth hormones, or antibiotics, despite the fact that the FDA has yet to develop rules governing the use of the word "natural”.

The term "natural" is used very loosely in the food industry. There is no formal definition for the use of the term on food labels, yet it has become common to see that claim on food and beverages in the grocery aisle. That being said, the FDA has considered ‘natural’ to mean the product contains no artificial ingredients, no added color, and minimal processing of the product. In addition to this, the product must also include a statement describing what their use of natural means, i.e. no artificial ingredients used. However, being free of these things does not mean the food has a higher nutrient value.

Bottom line: A product labeled ‘natural’ does not equate to being more nutritious.

Hormone and Antibiotic Free Eggs

Although some egg cartons may specify they are hormone free, all egg laying hens are hormone free.

The FDA requires all organic eggs to be laid by hens that were raised antibiotic free. Conventional eggs may come from hens that have used antibiotics, but FDA regulations ensure that no antibiotic residue is present in any eggs.

Bottom line: All eggs are free of hormones and antibiotics.

No Hormones Added

This is one of the most confusing (and concerning) topics for consumers that I’ve noticed.

To start, hormones are not allowed in the production of pork or poultry. Ever. In fact, administering hormones to chickens has been banned since 1950. So why are we still seeing “no hormones added” on packages in the grocery store? To sum it up, people are confused and many companies believe there’s a lot to gain from including that line on their packages. That being said, should companies choose to use the term “no hormones added” on their packaging, they must also indicate that federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.

Hormones are allowed in the production of beef, so the term “no hormones administered” on beef packages does carry some weight. Hormones are typically used to increase an animal’s growth rate and efficiency of converting feed to meat. These steroids are typically administered as slow dissolving pellets under the treated animal’s skin, generally on the back side of the animal’s ear. The ears of treated animals are then discarded after slaughter. Approved hormones have a zero-day withdrawal period, meaning beef is safe for consumption at any time.

Bottom line: No hormones are used in the production of pork or poultry, and hormones used in beef production are safe to consume at any time after the animal is treated.


If you shop at Harmons, you’ve most likely noticed our organic tags throughout our stores. So, what does the organic symbol actually mean?

There are three levels of organic claims when it comes to food:

100 percent organic: Products made of completely organic ingredients.
Organic: Products made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
Made with organic ingredients: Products in which at least 70 percent of its ingredients are organic. These products will not have the USDA organic seal on it.

Although many people may assume organic means a product is free of pesticides and fertilizers, that is often not the case. Organic farmers are allowed to use a variety of pesticides and fertilizers on their crops, so long as those chemicals were derived from natural sources rather than synthetic sources. In addition, the equipment used to apply the pesticides as well as the land used for the crops must be free of synthetic chemicals for a minimum of three years.

For organic meat and dairy products, USDA regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics or hormones, require all feed to be 100 percent organic, and living conditions to reflect their natural behaviors, e.g. grazing on pasture.

Bottom line: As is the case with 'natural', organic does not necessarily mean the product is more nutritious, but rather indicates that the product was produced following strict standards.