The Reality of Food Labels: Gluten Free, Natural, Grass Fed

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The Reality of Gluten Free, Natural, Grass Fed Food Labels

Welcome back to part two of our article series on Food Labels. Our first article looked at the organic and non-gmo food labeling. Now we examine the ubiquitous ‘gluten-free,’ the ambiguous ‘natural,’ and other nutritious seals with varying degrees of certified definitions.

Gluten-Free & Celiacs

Gluten Free
Did you know that Gluten-Free is a voluntary label for manufacturers to denote that their product contains less than 20 ppm (part per million) of gluten? So, a company can label bottled water and laundry detergent gluten-free. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, “FDA does not endorse, accredit, or recommend any particular third-party gluten-free certification program.” What that means is that compliance of gluten-free standards fall squarely on the shoulders of the manufacturer. Scrolling through the Question and Answers section regarding the final rule on Gluten-Free food labeling, we see the reality of the situation. Taken directly from the FDA website:

“Are manufacturers required to test for gluten to make a gluten-free claim on their food labels?
No. The final rule does not specifically require manufacturers to test for the presence of gluten in their starting ingredients or finished foods labeled gluten-free. However, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that foods bearing a gluten-free claim meet the requirements of the final rule.”

That’s helpful. How does the FDA guarantee that companies are following gluten-free standards, you ask? In typical fashion, “post-market monitoring activities.” Classic move, solve a health problem only after it has been lingering for a while. For celiacs, what does this all mean? Firstly, the gluten-free standard only applies to packaged foods. That means that restaurants and other food vendors may claim gluten-free but are not required to follow any of the standards set forth. Cross-contact is a part of unavoidable gluten in a foodstuff, which is one of the reasons why the FDA made the standard of less than 20 ppm of gluten. A restaurant, food truck, or other non-packaged food manufacturers may have negligible to gross amounts of cross-contact between gluten-free and gluten-full products. Also, gluten sensitivities vary and are unique to each person. If you have celiac disease, you ought to do your due diligence and thoroughly know your gluten sensitivity, as well as know the manufacturers of the products you consume.

Natural, Often Used and Often Confused

Natual Seal
According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Natural is:

‘A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).’

How about our friends at the FDA? Well, they are considering a term and still choose not to establish an official definition of ‘natural.’ In their words, “The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that 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.”

What this means is that ‘natural’ in food labeling is a loose term designed to bring some form of consumer appeasement.


In previous years, one could claim ‘grass-fed’ for ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) if they consumed grass for any portion of their life. Meaning, they could have eaten grass for the first year of life and then finished on grain (ate grains until slaughter). Nowadays, to claim ‘grass-fed’ the forage standards imply 100% grass fed to animals. Once weaned from mother’s milk, the animal’s diet must be “derived solely from forage, and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season until slaughter.” This is taken from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Labeling Guideline on Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submissions. You may have heard that in January 2016, the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) withdrew the claim of Grass Fed and Naturally Raised standards. Since AMS and FSIS are two arms of the USDA, this gets sticky. On one hand the standard for ‘grass fed’ has been withdrawn completely (AMS), and on the other hand, to make the claim the standard must be 100% forage or grass-fed (FSIS). Weird, I know! And totally confusing! That leaves us with the notion that if it is labeled grass-fed than the company has been approved by the USDA to do so through sufficient documentation. Note: There is no third-party verification needed to make this claim! Also note: “grass” is one of the most genetically modified plants around. So, grass fed does not equal non-GMO!

Free Range and Pasture Raised

The USDA requires “outdoor access” or “access to the outdoors.” This definition means that access can be a hole to the outdoors whereby full body exposure to the outdoors is impossible, and there are no standards on space or time requirements. A misleading label for sure! That said, the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) organization has introduced two certified seals with real measures in place and all! HFAC’s Certified Humane Free Range includes 2 sq ft per animal and 6 hours outdoors. HFAC’s Certified Humane Pasture Raised requires 108 sq ft per animal and year-round outdoor living with a rotation of fields.

The list of food seals is seemingly never-ending. There are specific seals for crops, livestock, seafood, even dietary supplements, body care and cosmetic products. For everything sold as a consumable product, there are rules for how it can be marketed to the public. Each seal or labeling standard has its own level of scrutiny. Some labels are more loosely regulated than others. We have seen that labels can be easily attained with little factual basis, while others require more thorough screening.

Since you and I are both consumers, we ought to be more trusting in our intuitive process. If we feel that a product is worth investing in, we can research the manufacturer and ask them questions. A reputable company will be transparent and happy to share their values and process. Food labels are superficial, and some companies really go deep to create a high-quality product. Here at Lakewood Ranch Acupuncture and Wellness, we strive to provide the best services and products for your health journey. Call us today with any questions or to schedule a nutritional consultation. Whether you are here in Sarasota or Bradenton, or on the opposite coast, we can partner with you to cultivate wellness. Contact us now to schedule your next wellness session!