Food Terms You Need To Know: Part 1

There's a lot of confusion these days about what some food related terms mean and more importantly, what they don't mean.  When we pick our groceries, we naturally encounter at least a few of these terms.  Now with the surge in the health food industry, these words start to pop up everywhere and it is really important to understand what they actually mean rather than what the companies want you to think it means.  Originally, I thought that one post could cover all the potentially confusing terms I could think of.  It turns out that I could probably write a separate post for each of the terms (but I won't--at least right now anyway), so I have decided to break it down into a couple different parts.

It's important to keep in mind that these terms may differ depending on which country you are in.  Here are the first few terms that you should understand:
  1. Natural/All-natural:  a vague term that refers to foods that have not been "significantly altered" by processing.  This means that foods fortified with vitamins and minerals, foods with additives, and foods with artificial coloring are not considered all-natural.  It also means that if something is taken out of the food in processing, it can no longer be considered "all-natural."  Be aware that processed foods can contain natural ingredients, and many get around this by saying "98% natural" or something similar.
  2. Organic:  see our post on what "organic" really means for a more in depth explanation of this term.  Also keep in mind that a food that says "USDA certified organic" is different from one that just says "organic." Similar to "all-natural," many companies say "made with 96% organic ingredients" which often gets misunderstood as healthier.
  3. Gluten free:  does not mean it is healthier, calorie-free, carbohydrate-free, etc.  It simply means that there is no gluten in that particular product.  Gluten free products can still contain dairy, eggs, etc. and aren't always healthier than the "regular" product.  Use the same discretion that you would use with "regular pretzels" (as an example) before downing a whole bag of gluten-free pretzels!
  4. Wheat free:  does not mean the same thing as "gluten free."  For those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, eating foods that say "wheat free" are not all safe to eat!  Remember that gluten can be found in many other grains besides wheat.
  5. Free range:  means that the animal (poultry in particular) has access to the outdoors rather than being stuck in a cage indoors.  However, it has been revealed that some free range chickens are not in significantly better conditions than non free range.  The USDA does not state how long the chickens must be outside for or how big the outdoor area must be.
So yes, unfortunately we all need to have a little bit of that consumer watchdog in us when it comes to picking foods.  You cannot assume that just because you see one of those terms that generally make us think it's a healthier option, that it actually is.  What is the solution?  Eat foods that are not processed and that contain few ingredients.  Finally, don't get too caught up in the marketing terms found in the food industry.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

All the best,


Photos from

Dr. Cho, ND is a naturopathic doctor based in Pickering, Ontario and Richmond Hill, Ontario.  She maintains a private practice focused in pain management and sports nutrition, in addition to a general family practice at Durham Natural Health Centre.  To learn more about Dr. Cho, book a complimentary 15 minute consult by clicking here.  Not in the Durham Region?  Contact her through to learn about more options.


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