5 Grocery Store Labels That Don’t Actually Mean Much

published Jun 16, 2015
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(Image credit: via Michael Newhouse)

There are oh-so-many buzzwords in the food industry (family farms, anyone?) and many of them are vague. While there’s a meter to help break through corporate speak, it takes a bit of label reading and research to learn what exactly the claims on your package mean, and how, exactly, to know what you’re eating.

Here’s a guide to food marketing-ese in the grocery store.

Whole Grains

Unless you’re completely avoiding whole grains, you’re supposed to consume them. And at first glance, the store is full of them. “Whole grain,” “cracked wheat,” “stone-ground wheat,” and countless other claims billboard the cereal and bread aisles.

Your best best for exceeding that 50% whole-grain daily goal is to hit up the bulk bins, where oats are oats. Those packaged goods could be misleading, and you might not be doing yourself any favors by buying those whole-grain crackers (which sometimes contain more sugar than wheat).

Too busy to DIY your own breads and cereals? Check out the labels and make sure that “whole” appears on the ingredient list itself, preferably connected with the one at the top.

More on Whole Grains


Cage-free is to chickens what “not grounded” is to a 16-year-old without a driver’s license. Sure, they’re not locked up, but they also can’t get anywhere. Egg cartons have a lot of claims these days, and while some are helpful (such as the “fed a vegetarian diet” one that confirms the hens aren’t eating ground-up animal parts), others are just misleading.

Unless you see the word “pasture” somewhere on the container, set aside those Dixie Chicks reveries of “Wide Open Spaces,” and resign yourself (and those chickens) to Incubus’ “Crowded Elevator.”

→ Pro tip: Pasture-raised eggs should cost a lot more than factory farm eggs.


Once upon a time, artisan products were made by, well, artisans. You probably know one or two. They have extremely high standards on everything from processes to ingredient sourcing, and they’d rather spend half an hour hand-squeezing lemons than buying ready-to-pour lemon juice. (Like this one, here.)

Also — big distinguisher here — their products are not conceived in a lab or a marketing meeting. That national brand that’s been around for decades that suddenly has the word artisan in a handwriting-like font on their packaging? Give their marketing team kudos for being on trend, but ignore the claims. If you want Tostitos, just buy Tostitos.

All Natural

The natural foods industry is big. Like, 70,000 people walking never-ending aisles of trade show booths while being handed the latest quinoa-popcorn-chia-jerky-coconut water by attractive people big. I’m talking, of course, about Anaheim’s Natural Products Expo West, where the who’s who in the natural foods industry convene for half a week. (This Ohio gal’s favorite natural product at this March trade show? Sunshine.) It’s a growing industry, and the products harboring a “natural” label may be making waves in our industrialized Farm Bill food world — some say that Whole Foods Market and their standards literally influence the entire industry — but any claim without third-party certification is made on a sliding scale of morality by the producer itself.

The FDA is vague on the term, and declines to define the term, beyond the exclusion of added colors, artificial flavors, and synthetic substances. Tempted by something with All Natural on the label? Read the ingredients, read the producer’s website, and decide for yourself if it meets your idea of natural.


Angus beef is synonymous with quality, thanks in part to the rigorous standards put into a certification process and marketing campaign known as Certified Angus Beef (or G1) in the late 1970s. Ten specifications beyond initial grading — including high marbling and specific weight and muscling requirements — are examined by USDA graders for beef to be Certified Angus Beef. In short, it’s got to be at least Prime or Choice.

The confusing news is that some beef brands skip the certification and just live on the recognizability of the breed’s name. The better news is that to carry Certified Angus Beef, retailers (and restaurants) must be licensed. (A bonus to consumers is that all licensees are searchable.)

In short, just because something has the name “Angus” on it, doesn’t mean that it has the standards that gives the name its clout.

Coming up: Later in this series we’ll follow up with a few common grocery store and packaging claims that really do have the weight of standards and definitions behind them!