Understanding Food Labels: What's the Difference between Processed, Unprocessed, and other Food Label Terminology?

Food labels talk a big game in 2021. Gluten-free, organic, unprocessed, natural — the list of possible product credentials goes on and on. And how many people actually know what they mean?

When you’re in the CPG business, you want your customers to know all the benefits of your product, but how do you navigate the food label minefield? From misconceptions to buzzwords, you need to understand what each word means so you can help shoppers make sense of it too.

In this article, we’ll run through some of the most popular claims that food labels make — and their true (sometimes lesser-known) meanings.

No added sugar vs. sugar-free

What’s in a phrase? These two claims sound similar, but when you know the difference, you’ll see that’s not the case. 

Some foods are naturally high in sugar. So when a brand claims to have “no added sugar”, all that means is that they haven’t added any more of the sweet stuff into their product. Does it mean “no sugar” or “low sugar”? No siree.

Meanwhile, “sugar-free” refers to the total amount of sugar per serving. To earn the label “sugar-free”, each serving needs to contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar, both natural and added. 

Plus, it’s important to note that while a CPG may have no added sugar or be sugar-free, it could still contain sugar substitutes — many of which aren’t exactly healthy.

Processed vs. unprocessed

The idea that processed food is unhealthy is a common CPG misconception. When we read the term “processed” we often think of empty calories — of junk food with high fat and sugar levels.

In actual fact, a processed food is one that’s undergone a change of character, according to the USDA.

There are lots of processed foods that remain healthy and nutritious. For example, edamame is an unprocessed food, while tofu is its processed counterpart. 

A stack of jars with yellow labels reading 'Natural almond'

Natural vs. organic

“Natural” pops up on lots of food and beverage labeling — but how many consumers (or CPG owners for that matter) can define what it means? 

You can call your product “natural” if it originates from a natural source, like an orange, for example. But this packaging phrase says very little about the business’s use of pesticides, or any of the food processing or manufacturing methods.

“Organic”, on the other hand, is a far more specific term. And specialist criteria need to be met to earn this accreditation. 

The USDA defines organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products as coming from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Meanwhile, organic plant foods are produced without the use of most conventional pesticides and fertilizers. 

Still, organic sugar is still sugar, so it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any healthier than its non-organic equivalents.

Low calorie, low fat, light

When it comes to these three labels, a little further investigation is almost always required.

For example, a “low-calorie” yogurt must offer one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original variant. However, comparing it to rival yogurt brands may reveal that the low-calorie version of one brand is similar in calories to another brand’s original. Sneaky!

The term “low-fat” can be similarly deceptive. While the amount of fat may have been reduced, it’s often replaced with higher sugar levels.

Then, we have “light”, which means the product has been processed to reduce either the calories or fat, but sometimes, all it means is that they’ve watered it down. 

Local

A relatively new buzzword in the world of CPGs, the local food movement is connected to environmental sustainability and supporting small businesses in a local economy. 

There’s currently no USDA definition on what distance constitutes as “local”. And, as such, it’s a pretty subjective term to be using. Be clear on what your idea of local is — and consider whether your customers would agree.

A restaurant sign reading 'Local' in uppercase letters

Whole

“Whole” is another on-trend term awaiting USDA definition. Generally speaking, though, a “whole food” is one that’s unprocessed or minimally processed, and does not contain any added ingredients. Usually, brands define whole foods as fresh produce, dairy, whole grains, meat, and fish. 

When it comes to products claiming to be “made with whole grains”, though, it’s important to check the ingredients. The number of whole grains actually used can vary significantly, and some brands use negligible amounts of whole grains to appear more nutritious. 

For a product that’s truly made with whole grains, they should be in the top three ingredients.

Gluten-free

Gluten-free = healthy, right? Not necessarily. In fact, all gluten-free means is that it doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. 

With so many customers seeking GF foods in the belief that they’re healthier, there are tons of ultra-processed, unhealthy foods hiding under the gluten-free label. With the boom in demand for gluten-free items, many foods that have always been naturally gluten-free — rice, we’re looking at you! — have begun advertising themselves as gluten-free, also.

Fortified or enriched

When you see these terms, it’s easy to believe the product has been blessed with some kind of magic ingredient that’s going to make you a happier, healthier version of yourself. 

In reality, the definition is simple (and far less aspirational): that nutrients have been added to the product. Bread, milk, cereals, and juices often have vitamins added to them. However, if a food is unhealthy to begin with, additional nutrients don’t automatically make the product good for you — a fortified donut is still a donut, after all!

Now that you know which label means what, you’ll be able to advertise your consumer packaged good (CPG) to the best of your ability. With the right branding, your product is bound to find its way into shoppers’ hands.

Check out the Buffalo Market ‘Food Distributor and Consumer Packaged Good News’ blog for more CPG marketing and design tips today.


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