What Food Product Labels Really Mean

What do those product labels really mean, and do they really matter?

With the proliferation of so many buzzwords, shopping can be a daunting task.

With the proliferation of many convenience foods and ingredients purporting to be "healthy" or perhaps just as importantly, "green" in one way or another, shopping for groceries can be a daunting task. There’s even an entire supermarket chain, Whole Foods, that happens to be wildly successful (it last reported net income in excess of $117 million, up nearly 31 percent over the prior year), dedicated to the concept of shopping by buzzword.

Food Labels, Decoded

There was once a time when the only thing that really mattered when it came to eating food was a vague concept known as "wholesomeness." Difficult to define yet seemingly desirable, wholesomeness was perhaps more easily defined by examples of what was not wholesome rather than what actually was. Anything that wasn’t made from scratch was probably not "wholesome," anything that didn’t stick to your ribs was not "wholesome," and anything that had ingredients that you couldn’t identify as food was probably not what Nonna or your cultural equivalent considered "wholesome."

Not anymore. These days, many more buzzwords are creeping into our language, and they can make grocery shopping a real chore. To cite an example of just how confusing the experience can be, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, offers this little vignette about his milk shopping experience at Whole Foods: "Some of the organic milk in the milk case was 'ultrapasteurized,' an extra processing step that was presented as a boon to the consumer, since it extends shelf life. But then another, more local dairy boasted about the fact they had said no to ultrapasteurization, implying that their product was fresher, less processed, and therefore more organic." Organic, ultrapasteurized, local, more organic — it’s enough to make anyone just grab a random jug out of confusion and frustration.

10 Reasons Organic Food Is So Expensive

Yet, in a way, perhaps one could argue that in the end, it all boils down to "wholesomeness," whatever it is — many people seem to have an interest in food that is not just "wholesome" for themselves, but for the animals and society as a… whole — in terms of its production, sustainability (another loaded term), and its overall impact on the environment and the people who produce it. Chipotle’s carnitas burrito, for example, wasn’t really a hot seller until its founder, Steve Ells, made the switch to antibiotic-free pork. The switch was inspired by an article called "The Lost Taste of Pork," written by Edward Behr, about a Niman Ranch pork chop Behr had first tasted at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. After the switch, Chipotle customers started purchasing more carnitas, despite an initial 22 percent premium.