A few years ago, DiGiorno’s unveiled a new product to go along with their frozen pizzas: boneless wyngz. And no, this was not just a fun way to spell wings. As Stephen Colbert pointed out on The Colbert Report, DiGiorno’s had to call them wyngz because they were literally not wings; “wings,” as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, must have actual wing meat in them. Wyngz do not. As weird as this example is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the language of food labels.
You probably have read the packaging on hundreds of different products, but do you really know what all the phrases mean? When something says it’s “cage-free” and “organic,” you might imagine that what you were eating was once free to roam the countryside, but these terms don’t really match up with your expectations. We looked into some of the language of food labels to see what these terms actually mean. Next time you’re in the grocery store trying to figure out what “all-natural” and “free-range” really mean, you’ll be prepared.
Organic is one of the most important terms in the language of food labels. The USDA has very specific guidelines for a product to be Certified Organic. In an article on what “organic” means, the USDA says that they take into account a number of factors, including “soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.” The definition of organic has to change based on the product. There are a whole range of requirements and prohibited substances that go into being organic, but it’s worth knowing that it’s the most strictly controlled term on food labels.
You probably think you know what a chip is. “It’s a slice of potato that’s been fried! Or something like that.” Which, yes, sure. But it turns out chips are a bit more specific than that. The definition of “chip” came into question about a decade ago when Pringles was trying to convince the United Kingdom that it was not a potato chip (or a “crisp,” as they call them over there). The reason for this was because potato chips are taxed as a luxury good, but other snacks are not. In fairness, Pringles are made very differently than other chips. Instead of cutting into a potato, it’s potato flour (which makes up 40 percent of the recipe) along with rice, corn and wheat. While this case actually went on in the U.K. courts for a while, the ultimate decision was that if it looks like a chip and tastes like a chip, it’s gotta be a chip.
Natural And All-Natural
First, it should be noted that there’s no official difference between “natural,” “all-natural,” “100 percent natural” or anything else of that nature. But natural can be an amorphous term. A few years ago, the Food and Drug Administration put out a statement saying that “natural” meant “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” This may seem pretty straightforward, but this definition is a bit controversial.
In 2016, the FDA decided to allow the public to comment on its definition of the word “natural” on food labels. What followed was over 7,000 comments, varying in rage, rejecting the USDA’s definition of natural. At least one comment advocated for overthrowing the government in relation to the word “natural.” Common complaints were that genetically modified organisms should not be labeled “natural,” and that anything treated with pesticides also shouldn’t count. Natural also seemed to imply to some that it was healthy, though there’s no real relation between the two. Clearly, “natural” is ambiguous, but the FDA has not yet put out a new definition.
You’d think there would be a pretty standard definition of “milk,” because it’s literally a product created by mammals. As coconut milk, almond milk, hemp milk, soy milk, cashew milk and oat milk have flooded the market, the meaning has shifted a bit. In response, the dairy industry has filed several lawsuits to limit the use of the word “milk.” There is even an attempt at passing the Dairy Pride Act, which would ban non-dairy products from using dairy-related language (milk, cheese, etc.).
What is the argument in favor of calling these other products “milk”? The plant-based milk groups consider it a free speech issue, though clearly, this whole list shows you can’t call foods anything you want. The main reason for the dairy industry’s pushback is likely that milk consumption has been in decline for over a decade now. The FDA has not yet handed down an official ruling for what counts as “milk,” however.
Cage-Free And Free-Range
“Cage-free” and “free-range” are often paired together, and they can be somewhat misleading terms. They may make you think of chickens running free over the countryside, but the definition is a bit more constrained than that. In fact, these terms were a big part of Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!, in which documentarian Morgan Spurlock looks at how fast-food companies market their food. Cage-free just means that there are no cages involved, but chickens can still be kept in a windowless, completely full barn. Free-range is perhaps even more misleading because all it means is that chickens are able to be in the open air for some indeterminate amount of time. In Spurlock’s case, all that was needed to be free-range was an outdoor area of about four square feet for the chickens to crowd into.
Processed Cheese And Imitation Cheese
There are a number of names for cheese that is not cheese, including “processed cheese” and “cheese product.” Generally, these two terms mean that cheese is still part of the end product. Bon Appetit says that about 50 percent of processed cheese is actual cheese, with other stuff added to it. That other stuff can be food dyes, emulsifiers and other artificial ingredients. This doesn’t make it inherently bad, but generally processed cheese — American cheese, for example — is used on things like burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, rather than in gourmet cooking.
Imitation cheese is a completely different story. It is definitively not cheese; instead, it’s made from plant oils, like sunflower seed oil or similar products. It’s often used on things like frozen pizzas. The one thing it does have in common with cheese is casein, which is a protein found in milk and cheese. It’s also used in adhesive and paint, however, so that doesn’t say much for its nutritional value.
“Superfood” has no scientific definition. There are plenty of foods that get labeled superfoods — blueberries, kale, beans, sweet potatoes and many others — but it really all comes down to marketing. It’s generally agreed that superfoods are nutrient-rich foods, but beyond that it’s a meaningless term.
Fresh And Not Frozen
The USDA has clear guidelines for both “fresh” and “not frozen.” Not frozen is pretty straightforward because all it requires is that the product was not frozen at any point. Fresh, however, is mainly defined in negatives. Fresh food cannot have been canned, or cured, or processed, or have ever been below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. While these are heavy constraints, fast-food chains have evaded the specific restrictions, which is why Wendy’s can tout their burgers as “fresh, never frozen.”
Like how processed cheese has some cheese in it, wine product has wine at its base. It just also has other things. The New York State Liquor Authority, for example, defines it as a beverage which contains wine as well as “concentrated or unconcentrated juice, flavoring material, water, citric acid, sugar and carbon dioxide.” Wine product also can’t have more than 6 percent alcohol content, which is about half that of regular wines.