ollege student reading labels on a food product while grocery shopping.

Common Food Labels: What Do They Mean?

Written by OSU student Jessy Woodworth

When you walk into the grocery store, your senses are automatically overwhelmed with marketing. It never fails. There are so many different words you are expected to know: GMO free, all natural, organic and everything else under the sun with no clear explanations.

This guide will help you cut through the marketing schemes by defining the most common and confusing labels, so in a store full of choices, you’ll know what you’re actually paying for.

All Natural

The meaning of this phrase on your food is simple: not much. “All natural” is not formally defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is the U.S. agency responsible for regulating packaging phrases on food products.

Companies use this label on their produce, meat or grains for marketing. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) interpretation of the label, it’s more an indication of how the food is processed rather than how it’s grown. Obviously, processed foods like Twinkies will not fit UDSA’s “natural” description, but overall, the label doesn’t mean anything about how the food was raised.


The FDA does not define or regulate the use of “organic,” but the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) does. NOP defines an organic farm as one that “demonstrates they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity and using only approved substances.”

Any food labels using the term organic must be certified by the USDA. The approval process for organic labeling is thorough and has very high standards. For example, in order for a field of soybeans to be considered organic, the crop can’t have certain fertilizers, pesticides, or other substances applied for three years beforehand. This is expensive and time consuming, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t any products used on organic food. Some pesticides, fertilizers, medicines and other substances are still allowed, and that’s not a bad thing. The farmers, scientists and veterinarians who use them are trained professionals and know how to apply them safely.

Want to dig deeper into organic qualifications? The USDA outlines them here.


GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism” and refers to any food that has had its DNA altered through the introduction of new genes or the removal of others. Evolution and breeding techniques like cross pollination have resulted in genetic differences for millennia, but direct gene intervention is what makes a GMO. As of now, there are only 10 GMOs on the market, eight of which are consumed by humans, so the non-GMO label is often just used for marketing.

Since GMOs are not easily understood, it’s not hard to make them sound scary and unhealthy. Luckily for us, GMOs are completely safe and have caused no adverse health effects, but they do have some excellent benefits. They allow us to lower greenhouse gas emissions, decrease usage of herbicides and pesticides and allow farmers in developing nations to grow more food.

The non-GMO label is recognized by the FDA, but it is voluntary. Many companies use it to earn a premium price on foods that wouldn’t have contained GMOs in the first place. For example, if a package of broccoli claims to be non-GMO, it doesn’t mean anything because there is no such thing as a GMO head of broccoli.

An Economy Full of Choices

Soon, companies will be required to label bioengineered food to comply with recent legislation. Why label it? Because there is nothing to hide. Those growing and processing your food want to be open and honest about the methods they use, and this label supports that goal.

We are part of an incredible economy and time in modern agriculture where we can decide what we eat based on preference of production practices, cost, color of packaging, or any other factor. No matter what your preference, it’s important to remember that any food in the grocery store today has gone through rigorous testing by the FDA to ensure it is safe to eat. So, if you are paying more for something because of a label on the package, consider what you are actually paying for and if you think the extra cash is worth it.

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