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Understanding food marketing terms

Janet Hackert, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Harrison County, University of Missouri Extension


Choosing healthy foods can sometimes be difficult, especially when you’re unsure what food marketing terms mean (e.g., natural, processed or unprocessed, local or organic). In a recent press release, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) helped explain some of these terms.


The word “natural” sounds wholesome and healthy but does it really guarantee any particular characteristics of the food? According to the ADA, it does not. The ADA press release states, “Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has formally defined it.”


The word “processed” has gotten a bad reputation, but in fact, it simply means that “the food has undergone a ‘change of character.’” Peanut butter would be considered processed and so would roasted nuts. Pre-washed raw spinach would also be considered processed by this definition, even though this would be a nutritious vegetable choice.


“Locally grown” is another common term that marketers use to encourage shoppers to purchase their produce and other products.


“The local food movement refers to buying food that is grown close to where you live,” said Melinda Johnson, registered dietician and spokesperson for the ADA.


Produce that is grown and harvested close by can be fresher than something being shipped in from a distance. It is up to the consumer to investigate just where the food was grown and how fresh it is.


The term “organic” is regulated, so its meaning is a little better defined. Generally it means that the plant food is “produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.” To use the “organic” label, the food must be certified to prove that standards are met.


It is good to be concerned about making the healthiest food choices.


“The best information on whether a food is healthful can be found on the Nutrition Facts label,” said Johnson.


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Last update: Friday, January 14, 2011