Natural? Processed? Organic? Why you should actually ignore confusing food marketing terms

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CHARACTERISTIC – Natural. Processed. Local. Whole. Organic. No added sugar. Low in calories. When you see terms like these on food packages, do you know what they mean? Do they lead you to buy a certain product over another? Do they leave you confused?

Stock Image | Photo by ThamKC/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Food manufacturers use words to increase the appeal of their products. The words they choose are meant to make you think that you are making the healthier choice. The food in the package may or may not be healthy for you.

To be a smart consumer, familiarize yourself with food marketing terms and what they really mean.


A truly natural food has not been processed in any way. Most foods have been processed in some way. The term “natural” does not mean that the food has added nutritional value or health benefits.

processed and unprocessed

People generally think that processed foods are bad. Under that assumption, bagged spinach, canned tomatoes, frozen fruit, and packaged pasta sauce would all be considered unhealthy foods. Any food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, or packaged is a processed food. learn more here.


Buying locally grown food is a great way to support your community and the local economy. There may also be some additional health benefits to eating seasonal foods picked at the peak of their ripeness. However, there is no hard and fast rule for distance requirements for something to be labeled “local”.

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Whole grain or whole wheat

Foods are sometimes labeled “made with whole grains” or “whole wheat,” but they are not actually whole grains. The label must say “100% whole grain.” Learn more about Whole Grains Council.


Not all foods labeled “organic” are created equal. The USDA has strict guidelines for obtaining an organic certification. You can learn more by by clicking here. Even with an organic label, foods can be high in fat, sodium, and sugar and contain very little nutritional value.

Without gluten

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People with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease should look for gluten-free products. For the rest of us, the “gluten-free” label doesn’t mean it’s the best option. In fact, many healthy foods like quinoa, oatmeal, rice, potatoes, and nut flours are naturally gluten-free with or without the word “gluten-free” on the label.

Low in calories

To be labeled “low calorie,” a product must have one-third fewer calories than the original version of the branded product. There is no comparison between brands. Therefore, the low-calorie version of one brand may be just as high in calories as the regular version of a similar product from another brand.

The best way to eliminate these and other food marketing terms is to ignore them. That’s how it is! Ignore them. The easiest healthy eating plan you can follow is MyPlate. MyPlate is a simple and easy to understand visual that will teach you the following:

  • Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Focus on whole fruits.
  • Vary your vegetables.
  • Make half your grains whole.
  • Vary your protein routine.
  • Switch to low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
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Visit and spend a few minutes exploring and learning how MyPlate can help you.

Go one step further and familiarize yourself with the Nutrition Facts label. It’s your best tool for determining what’s really in a food package and how healthy it is for you. Click here to learn about each section of the Nutrition Facts label and what it means.

Did all that talk about food make you hungry? Here is a quick, easy and healthy snack idea. See the recipe for four-ingredient oatmeal cookies here.

Not a fan of cinnamon? No problem. Leave it out. You can also skip the nuts and try different toppings like chocolate chips, coconut flakes, or chia seeds. Enjoy!

Written by CANDI MERRITT, Certified Nutrition Education Ambassador.

This article originally appeared on January 24, 2022 in the USU extension Create a blog for better health.

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