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Food Labels—What Do They Really Mean?

By Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES May 3, 2021Nutrition Education Services Center Blog

Our foods and eating styles are often given names, labels, and descriptions—organic, clean, whole, plant-based. You hear about the types of foods and “diets” that may be good for you from friends, the internet, and advertisements. But, what do these descriptions really mean? Can you use these labels to guide you in making healthy food choices? Let’s find out one label at a time.


The word “organic” on a label requires that the product meet specific United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved guidelines. Organic food is cultivated without most conventional pesticides and certain fertilizers. If a farmer uses pesticides on organic foods, they must be from natural sources. Small, local farmers who don’t have the USDA organic certification may also use organic techniques so talk to sellers at farmers markets to see what farming practices they use.

Note: Foods with the organic label are often cost 50% more. Organic food has not been shown to be pesticide-free nor more nutritious than foods that are cultivated by conventional methods

Clean Eating

Clean eating has gained popularity in the last few years. There is not an official definition of “clean eating” or “certified clean foods.” It is more a perspective on the types of foods to eat and which foods to avoid. Depending on the source, the parameters of clean eating may change. Overall, clean eating most often involves choosing fresh and unprocessed foods from both plants and animals. Foods may be organically grown, non-GMO (genetically modified organism), prepared at home, and vary in additives and sugar content.

Note: Clean eating may or may not be balanced nutritionally based on the variety and amount of food from different foods groups. There also may be misconceptions about the value of different foods (clean vs. not clean), which may result in very restrictive menus that eliminate important nutrients that support the immune system and overall health.

Whole Foods

The term “whole foods” is used frequently in health-related articles, grocery store advertisements, and diet jargon. The term was first used in 1880. It usually describes foods that are minimally processed, do not have added ingredients, and are in the state you would find them in nature. Examples include fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, meat, eggs, and fish. Foods from all the food groups are considered “whole.” Since whole foods do not have nutrients removed in processing, they can carry more nutrients than foods that have been processed in a factory with possible additives, such as preservatives, saturated fats, sugar, dyes, and artificial ingredients. There is no official criteria in the United States to label a food product a “whole food.”


“Plant-based” can refer to specific food products or to a style of eating. Grocery stores now sell a growing number of foods that are labeled “plant-based.”  Some of these foods are alternatives to egg, dairy and meat products. Originally, plant-based referred to foods that come from plants, such as fruits, legumes, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and oils made from plants.

There are many eating styles that involve eating primarily plants such as plant-based eating or vegetarian eating styles, such as pescatarian (includes fish) and vegan (does not include any animal products, including dairy and eggs). There is no official definition for plant-based eating. The “Certified Plant Based” mark on food products indicates that the product is made only with plants as verified by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Culinary Institute of American has defined plant-forward as “a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to, plant-based foods….and that reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability.” Other examples of plant-based eating styles are the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Eating Plan, which were named two of the best diets overall in the U.S. News & World Report Rankings.

Plant-based eating can be healthy and modified to fit individuals’ needs, including people with a cancer diagnosis. Discuss with your healthcare team any changes you are considering making to your eating style. Ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist in your area to help you develop a healthy style of eating that can work for you.


U.S. Food & Drug Administration

Organic Foods

Using the Nutrition Facts Label




Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Author Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Nutrition Educator Margaret Martin is a Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist in the State of Tennessee as well as a Certified Diabetes Educator. Margaret graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science & Public Health from the University of Tennessee. With more than 10 years of experience in Clinical Nutrition, Margaret has also worked in the insurance industry with WellPoint Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield providing telephonic nutrition consultations, service assistance, and web-based nutrition education. In her free time Margaret volunteers with the American Lung Association’s annual “Lung Force Walk" in Middle Tennessee. She belongs to the Oncology Nutrition & Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More posts by Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

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