helpful terms

ARTIFICIAL COLOR: see food coloring.


CAGE-FREE: cage-free for hens means simply that the birds were able to roam freely around the building they are enclosed in. often this freedom of movement is not possible anyway, due to overcrowding of animals or because the chickens’ breasts have become so heavy due to selective breeding that their legs can’t support their own weight (the truth about chicken). either scenario is irrelevant to the usda, which only cares that they’re not confined to a cage. cage-free also stipulates that the animals had unlimited access to food and water. the term cage-free is only relevant to egg-laying hens. no poultry raised for meat in the u.s. are ever raised in cages, so use of this term on chicken or turkey meat is redundant. see also note regarding welfare certifications in the egg industry.

CERTIFIED HUMANE: humane farm animal care is a nonprofit attempting to establish recognized standards of farm animal welfare by defining some terms that the usda doesn’t have universal requirements for, like “free range,” and “pasture raised.” (these terms are not consistently enforced by the usda, which decides “free range” certification on a case by case basis, and does not regulate the “pasture raised” claim.) their “certified humane” program has its own specific regulations regarding these claims that cover animals “from birth through slaughter” (“free range” and “pasture raised”). despite these standards, which include allotting each bird 2 square feet and prescribing a minimum amount of time most farm animals must be outside to meet the requirements, (pigs raised for slaughter do not need to have outdoor access to qualify for the certified humane label), a certified humane certification still allows farmers to cut the beaks off of poultry within the first few days of life without anesthetic. see also note regarding welfare certifications in the egg industry. certified humane products use this label:

Certified Humane

CRUELTY-FREE: cruelty-free simply means that an activity or the manufacture of a product does not harm or kill animals, (ie. an activity does not mistreat animals or a product has not been tested on animals). this does not, however, mean that a cruelty-free product is free from animal products. certified cruelty-free products can also have animals and animal byproducts in them, so reading labels is important. the european union has not only banned animal testing for cosmetic products, but also banned the sale of cosmetic products that have committed testing on animals, including imported goods. animal testing is not legally required for cosmetic and personal use products in the u.s. (leaping bunny faq). there are quite a few organizations that attempt to certify cruelty-free products, but this term is not regulated by the u.s. government. currently, the only third-party & internationally-recognized certifier of cruelty-free products is leaping bunny. some labels that may indicate cruelty-free products:

leapingbunnycolor_medium-300x231PETA's Cruelty Free LogoChoose Cruelty Free Logo

DIETARY SUPPLEMENT: a dietary supplement is a product “taken by mouth” that supplements a regular diet by providing “dietary ingredients” which can include vitamins, minerals, herbs, enzymes, and amino acids (fda transparency basics). they are not considered food products and must be labeled as supplements. for dietary supplement labeling conventions, see nutrition facts.

ETHICAL: ethics refers to a set of morals or principals that a person or society adheres to. within the world of consumption, “ethical” generally refers to products, goods, or services that are manufactured or created in a way that minimizes social, (and sometimes environmental), damages associated with goods production. i.e. ethical products generally indicate that their items or services do not exploit workers or that their methods are environmentally responsible. the term is not legally regulated, and different certification bodies have different standards for what “ethical” can mean.  look for an explanation on a company’s website, or for the seal of a certifying organization to find out exactly what a company means when it claims its products or services are “ethical.”

FAIR TRADE: fair trade products emphasize fair prices and better trading conditions for goods producers and exporters, as well as promote sustainability of markets, and conservation of the local environment. fair trade certification also prohibits slave and child labor, and guarantees safe working conditions, as well as compliance with the u.n.’s charter of human rights (fair trade). fair trade promotes ethical purchasing. fair trade products are sometimes marked with these labels:

Fair Trade USA

FLAVOR: according to the fda, natural flavor is “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional” (code of federal regulations title 21). artificial flavor is any flavoring derived from a source not listed above. flavors are added to make processed foods taste and smell better, (smell is an important component of taste), and to even make the taste more short-lived to keep consumers eating more and more of the product (natural vs. artificial flavors). chemically, there is almost no difference between natural and artificial flavors, and there is no guarantee that something labeled as “natural strawberry flavor” has any strawberry-derived ingredients at all. in fact, any kind of “flavor” can contain anything from 50 to over 100 separate chemicals that work together to approximate “strawberry flavor.” many of these chemicals also have other functions, acting as preservatives, solvents, etc. there is no obligation for companies to disclose flavoring ingredients, and no guarantee that flavor ingredients are vegetarian or free of major food allergens.

FOOD COLORING: food coloring is an additive that imparts color to a product. coloring can be added to enhance natural color, to give color to colorless foods or products, or to make products with unappealing color more attractive. coloring can be naturally-derived from plants and minerals, (like color from fruit juices or spices), but it can also come from animal sources, like carmine, a red color made up of crushed cochineal insects. these colors can be added to food products as well as cosmetics. there are 7 artificial colors currently allowed in food by the fda, (and several more that are allowed in drug and cosmetic products), while many, many more have been banned over the last century due to health complications from ingestion (ex. red #2 caused intestinal tumors in rats). naturally-derived colors are exempt from fda certification. also, for some reason, the fda does not require color added to cheese, butter, or ice cream to be declared at all on the product’s ingredient list, although they encourage voluntary disclosure (code of federal regulations title 21).

FOREST STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL (FSC) CERTIFICATION: the fsc is interested in keeping the world’s forests healthy for future generations and to “promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world’s forests” (mission and values). they check for ten principles of sustainable and responsible management, making sure that the forests abide all local laws, respect indigenous claims for land use, protect and respect biodiversity and forest ecosystems, and encourage long-term economic and social relationships with workers and the community around the forest, among other things.

FRAGRANCE: fragrance is any combination of chemicals added to a product to make it smell better. fragrance is even sometimes used in “unscented” products, in just enough quantities to mask a product’s unpleasant scent. the fda does not require that fragrance be listed specifically by chemical breakdown in any cosmetic or product ingredients list, because doing so might force a company to give up its “trade secrets.” this means any multitude of chemicals used for fragrance purposes can be simply listed as “fragrance” without disclosure of its components (fragrances in cosmetics). according to the international fragrance association, each fragrance blend they create is composed of anywhere between 50 and 250 chemicals (a sense of creativity). many fragrances contain allergens and carcinogenic compounds, while others have been linked to headaches, nausea, and asthma (perfume). because of its high prevalence for allergic reactions (the number one cosmetic cause of contact dermatitis is fragrance allergy), the american academy of dermatology’s official position is to urge full disclosure of fragrance ingredients in products so that consumers can make choices best for their health (position statement on the chemical identity of fragrances). in an effort to be more transparent, the ifra has compiled a list of over 3,000 chemicals that were used in fragrance compounds in the year 2011, but does not disclose which products used these chemicals.

FREE RANGE: free range is a term that applies to poultry raised for human consumption, and means that the birds were allowed some access to outdoors, whether or not they go outside at all. however, the national chicken council admits that there is “no precise federal government definition,” and that qualification for use of the term is decided on a case by case basis by the usda (chickopedia: what consumers need to know). this ‘access to outdoors’ can sometimes be fulfilled by a “pop hole,” which doesn’t allow for full-body access (read: it’s not big enough for an animal to actually walk through), and need only be open for five minutes a day to qualify for free range (deciphering “humane” labels & loopholes). free range chickens can still be crowded into barns, starved in order to induce molting, and have their beaks cut off within the first few days of life (how to read egg carton labels). see also note regarding welfare certifications in the egg industry.

note: the term “free range” as regulated by the usda applies only to poultry raised for meat. it does not apply to cows or pigs raised for human consumption, nor does it apply to chickens raised to produce eggs, all of which are raised differently with different standards. thus, “free range” as a term on any beef, pork, or egg products can be used without meeting any usda standards at all.

FRESH: according to the fda, “fresh” can be applied to any raw food that hasn’t been frozen or heat-treated. however, “fresh” can also be applied to food products that have added wax or coatings, have been sprayed post-harvest with pesticides, have been subjected to a “mild chlorine wash or mild acid wash,” or have been exposed to ionizing radiation (fda “a food labeling guide”).

GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISM, (GMO), AKA BIOENGINEERED FOODS: any living organism that has had its genetic material (dna) artificially altered in a way not possible through natural mating or traditional crossbreeding techniques (such as crossbreeding hybrid plant species through pollination). genetic engineering of food is created through inserting, mutating, or deleting genes in the organism’s dna, and combinations of animal, plant, bacterial, and viral genes are common. certain u.s. crops are very high risk for being genetically modified, including alfalfa, canola (~90% of crops), cotton (~90% of crops), corn (~88% of crops), soy (~94% of crops), and sugar beets (~95% of crops) (what is gmo?). this means that if you’re eating food with u.s. grown soy products in it and it is not labeled as non-gmo (or organic), there’s a 94% chance that soy is genetically modified. see also non-gmo and organic.

GLUTEN: gluten is the protein composite found in wheat, rye, and barley. any products with these grains in them therefore also have gluten in them. people with celiac’s disease are unable to eat gluten, as its consumption causes an autoimmune reaction in which the body attacks its own digestive system. some people also claim a sensitivity towards gluten, which results in similar symptoms (bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue, anemia, migraines, etc.) but without the celiac diagnosis. neither of these are the same thing as having a wheat allergy, which is an immune response to proteins in wheat (which can include gluten). for a quick comparison of the three, see celiac vs gluten-sensitivity vs wheat allergies. see also major food allergen.

GLOBAL ORGANIC TEXTILE STANDARD (GOTS) CERTIFICATION: the gots monitoring system is used to certify the organic nature of textiles “from harvesting of the raw materials through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing all the way to labeling in order to provide credible assurance to the consumer” (global organic textile standard). companies interested in this certification must submit their entire supply and manufacturing chain to third-party inspection, which assures the organic nature of their fibers. certification also covers ecological and social criteria as well. the products must not be treated with any heavy metals, formadehyde, azo dyes that release carcinogens, or chlorine bleaches, packaging cannot contain pvc, and all tags must be made from either recycled products or fsc-certified material. a gots certification also ensures that all manufacturers meet the key standards of the international labor organization, ensuring that all workers are freely consenting adults, working a reasonable amount of hours in a safe and hygienic environment for a minimum wage, and have the right to bargain collectively.

HUMANE: (for the certified humane label, see certified humane.) humane as a term is not moderated or certified by the usda, and third-party regulations vary widely. see also note regarding welfare certifications in the egg industry.

MAJOR FOOD ALLERGEN: there are eight major food allergens identified by the fda as accounting for nearly 90% of all food allergies, these being: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soy. all food products containing any of these ingredients, or containing proteins derived from any of these ingredients, must be labelled on the package.

NATURAL: the term “natural,” although specifically defined in the u.k. and some other countries, has no real meaning as regulated by the u.s. government. this means companies can use the term “natural” to describe their products that contain ingredients that some consumers might not consider to be natural without any fear of violating u.s. federal restrictions. (an example of this might be wax added to the skin of fruit to make it look shinier.) the official fda stance: “from a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. that said, the fda has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives” (fda transparency basics).

NATURAL FLAVOR: see flavor.

NON-GMO (NON-GENETICALLY MODIFIED): simply, any product that has not undergone genetic engineering. foods certified as non-gmo are free from genetic modifications in all stages, and at a low risk for contamination. this is not, however, the same thing as an organic certification. an organic certification means that a product is also inherently non-gmo, but a non-gmo certification does not ensure that the product is organically grown, (ie. they can be sprayed with synthetic pesticides, grown in soil with synthetic fertilizers, etc). see also genetically modified organism and organic. non-gmo products are largely certified by the nonprofit non-gmo project and labeled with their seal:

non-gmo certified

NUTRITION FACTS: all food products in the u.s. must supply a chart on the package of the product labelled “nutrition facts.” it is here that the composition of a product is broken down into its ingredients. almost all ingredients must be expressly listed in the ingredients list according to weight. this means that the first ingredient is the heaviest, (and thus, the most prominent ingredient), and the rest of the ingredients follow in order of decreasing weight.

note: products that are marketed as dietary supplements, (which can include vitamin and mineral supplements, protein mixes, detox regimens, post-workout recovery drinks, etc.), have a different method of reporting product ingredients. instead of a “nutrition facts” black and white chart we’re all familiar with, they can use a “supplement facts” chart, which looks nearly identical (fda dietary supplements). this allows the company to report all vitamins and minerals in their products and the small amounts that they may contain. (“nutrition facts” charts usually recommend simply rounding down to 0g if it’s a small amount, but supplements usually want to prove even a small amount of a mineral or vitamin.) underneath the “supplement facts” they have a section called “other ingredients,” where they will then list in order of weight the non-supplemental ingredients also in the product. non-supplemental ingredients are just the regular food ingredients that provide calories, (like whey protein found in certain recovery drinks), and can include sweeteners, gelatin and other binders, fillers, preservatives, colors, etc. i find this term incredibly misleading, as “other” makes it sound like these ingredients are negligible, which is not necessarily the case. vitamins and minerals are usually consumed in much, much smaller amounts than the macronutrients of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, which means that these non-supplemental “other ingredients” can sometimes account for the vast majority of the actual product. so if your hypothetical green tea & b12 ‘energy bites’ list sucrose (aka table sugar) as the first ingredient in the “other ingredients” list, that rush of energy you feel might be less of a vitamin rush and more of a good ol’ fashioned sugar rush. nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to be able read labels so you can decide what’s a quality product and what’s just an expensive box of candy.

ORGANIC: the term “organic” is highly regulated by the usda and organic standards “cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives” (usda organic agriculture). organic foods are grown with organic methods, and generally prohibit the use of irradiation, synthetic fertilizers, certain pesticides, sewage sludge, and genetically modified organisms. organic crop-farming methods encourage biodiversity and ecological balance (usda national organic program).

organic animal products means that the animals were fed 100% organic feed and allowed access to the outdoors. the term organic does not mean, however, that animals are treated any better than non-organically farmed animals. they still can be squished into tightly cramped quarters and subjected to body mutilations such as dehorning and castrating cows, debeaking poultry, and forcing rings into pigs’ noses in order to keep them from rooting into the ground, all without the use of anesthetic or painkillers. in fact, organically-raised farm animals can mean higher prevalence of infection and parasites, as farmers sometimes refuse to medicate their sick animals in order to prevent losing their organic status (the organic and free-range myth). see also note regarding welfare certifications in the egg industry.

the usda recognizes nearly 100 agents that are allowed to certify organic food in the u.s., (get the list here), and so certified organic foods can bear many different logos, including any of the following:

usda organic logoQAI Certified OrganicOCIA Organic

note: be aware that the usda allows any company to use the word organic, or variations of the word, as part of its company name and still sell non-organic products as long as the packaging makes no claims about the ingredients or the product itself being organic. (wow that was confusing- and it’s meant to be. a good example would be the newman’s own organics brand, which markets organic and non-organic food products.) also, non-food products may use the word organic as they wish, as it has no legal meaning in that context. so, in the world of organic products, talk is cheap- look for the label!

PRESERVATIVE: a preservative is any additive that tends to prevent spoilage of food, but this doesn’t include traditional preservation methods like salting, canning with sugar, fermenting, smoking, or “chemicals applied for their insecticidal or herbicidal properties” (code of federal regulations title 21). in addition to preservative additives, food may also be “exposed to high-energy radiation in order to kill microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, and insects” (food additives and preservatives). preservatives must be labelled within the nutrition facts of food products, but foods exposed to radiation as a means of preservation need not be labelled.

PROCESSED FOOD: any food that is not raw. this can apply to any foods that have been subjected to “canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling” (fda regulatory information “definitions”). almost anything you buy in a can, in a bag, or in a box at the grocery store has been processed, including soups, cooked beans, chips, crackers, juices, breads, granola bars, etc. the list goes on. most people on the standard american diet get a majority or their calories from processed foods. processed foods sometimes have higher amounts of sodium, sugar, fat, and other additives, (such as preservatives), in order to promote taste and increase shelf-life (eating processed foods).

PURE: this term has no legally identified meaning in the u.s., and the fda does not currently have any standards regarding what the “pure” claim should mean. that means any product can call itself “pure” regardless of whether it has any chemical additives (like preservatives, color, and flavor), has been subjected to pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, irradiation processes, or diluted with other ingredients.

RAW: raw foods are uncooked and generally unprocessed. this includes raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, but it can technically apply towards any uncooked foods, including raw (unpasteurized) dairy, and raw meat and eggs. raw food proponents claim that raw foods boast more nutrients than cooked foods, and that heating any food above 104′-120’f (40′-49′ c) denatures the enzymes in the food which aid digestion (raw foodism).

SUPPLEMENTS: see dietary supplement.

SUSTAINABLE: sustainable describes products, processes, and industries that are able to endure. the environmental protection agency defines sustainability as “the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations” (sustainability basic information). everything we do, consume, and produce uses natural resources like water, wind, energy, land, trees, animals, etc. sustainable practices are those that make sure we use less resources than we have available in order to ensure that we do not run out of resources in the future. many different organizations can certify goods as “sustainable,” and all have different qualifications. look for a company’s explanation of how their product is sustainable, or a seal indicating that their claim has been third-party verified.

VEGAN: vegan food and products contain absolutely no animal-derived products. animal-derived products include not only animal meat, bone and ivory, but also eggs, milk, honey, animal skins (including leather, pelts, fur, wool, and down), as well as silk.

VEGETARIAN: vegetarian refers to food or consumer products that contain no animal flesh. a person living a strict vegetarian lifestyle would abstain from eating animal meat, and also avoid products that come from animal slaughter, eg. leather, bone, and ivory goods, etc.

WELFARE CERTIFICATIONS IN THE EGG INDUSTRY: any certification of treatment regarding egg-laying chickens (whether the egg carton says cage-free, certified humane, free range, humanely raised, or organic) applies only to the hens laying eggs.

“virtually all hens in commercial egg operations—whether cage or cage-free—come from hatcheries that kill all male chicks shortly after hatching. the males are of no use to the egg industry because they don’t lay eggs and aren’t bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry. common methods of killing male chicks include suffocation, gassing, and grinding. hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed at hatcheries each year in the united states.” –the humane society of the united states