Food 101: What Labels Tell Us and Why it Matters

Polina Bogomolova, guest contributor at SAIS Washington, discussed food labels in her opinion piece.

Polina Bogomolova

Polina Bogomolova


How much do we know about the food we eat? As a graduate student interested in food security, I like to learn about what I eat, how it was made, and if it provides my body with necessary nutrients. The more I learn about food, the more I realize the majority of people never ask questions about what they put in their mouths.

Why am I concerned about this? Food production is driven by demand. Demand, however, is manipulated by suppliers through the media, lobbying and fashion. Knowledge about what we eat and why we eat it puts us, customers, in charge of the food supply and helps us improve food production. If enough people start to care about such things, more food companies will have to care about what they sell.
I recently went to Whole Foods looking for high quality beef for which I was willing to pay a premium. Surprisingly, finding that ultimate slice of steak turned out to be a bit of a challenge. “All Natural”, “Organic”, and “Grass-fed” labels on different packages were staring at me from the shelf. And what does the “vegetarian diet” label on a beefsteak mean? Does it mean some cows are fed something other than a vegetarian diet? On the other hand, what is up with the all-vegetarian-diet chicken? Puzzled and slightly confused, I asked the meat department worker to explain the different labels to me, but he was unable to.

According to the FDA, clearly defining “natural” food is impossible “because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” The label “organic” is much more complicated. According to the USDA, “organic” means the animal was raised without antibiotics and hormones and fed with certified-organic feed. For all animals except fish, it also means producers “provided animals with access to the outdoors.” The label “access” does not mean the animal is free-range. When it comes to beef, not all grass-fed beef is certified organic and not all organic beef is grass-fed. “Grass-fed” beef means “grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” The grass itself, however, may or may not be certified “organic.” Organic fruits and vegetables are produced without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. “Organic” and “grass-fed” are the only officially defined and standardized labeling terms. Everything else is just a producer’s way of making their product more attractive and expensive. Importantly, none of these terms translate to “healthy.”

According to the CDC, a healthy diet is a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. It does not, however, specify the food’s origin or the method used to produce it. It is up to the consumer to decide whether he wants to consider “organic” food healthier than “non-organic” food and whether “grass-fed” is better than “grain-finished”. I took time to do my research, questioned the labels and the advertisement, searched for actual medical explanations, and made my choice based on my findings, not on some fashion trend or pretty label. I suggest you do the same. Accepting the fact that not everyone has time to research, I want to point out a couple of “healthy” essentials that I hope will help you orient yourself in this sea of labels.

First, if the product has sugar listed as a first, second, or third ingredient, it is not “healthy” for you. The same goes for corn syrup and any other sugar supplements, even honey. Second, low fat and low sugar are not the same thing. Low sugar translates to fewer carbohydrates, which implies fewer calories. Low fat means low fat. It does not mean fewer calories.

I hope more people will start questioning the labels and learn about food because knowing more and learning more will help you make better choices and stay healthy. It also will help the food industry change for the better.