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Beyond the Buzzwords: Unpacking What Food Labels Really Mean

Why are the food labels in grocery stores so confusing? What do they really mean? And why do we care so deeply about this at ZBiotics?

In today’s grocery aisles, food labels have become as complex as the ingredients they aim to disclose. From the ubiquitous “non-GMO” and “organic” to the seemingly straightforward “free-range” and “all-natural,” the plethora of labels can leave even the most informed shoppers feeling puzzled.

Why is it that food labels, designed to inform, often end up confusing us instead? And importantly, why does our team at ZBiotics choose to put “Proudly GMO” on our Pre-Alcohol bottles, especially in an era where there is a rush towards placing “non-GMO” on everything?

The confusion behind food labels arises from a lack of standardization

Food labels are intended to provide us with essential information about the nutritional content and ingredients in our food. But they’re often more confusing than helpful.

The confusion arises from two places: the lack of standardization within the food industry and the practice of companies interpreting terms as broadly as possible. Take "natural" for instance. The term remains loosely defined by regulatory agencies, leading to overuse by corporate marketing departments and misinterpretation by consumers. Similarly, labels like "cage-free" or "free-range" imply a certain level of animal welfare, but due to varying legal standards for these terms, that implied standard may not match with reality.

Consider this: a staggering percentage of consumers misinterpret "free-range" to mean that animals spend the majority of their time in bucolic, open pastures. However, the reality is often far less idyllic, with the legal requirements for such labels requiring minimal access to the outdoors. As an example, the USDA allows producers to use the term 'free-range' or 'free-roaming' as long as the animals have access to the outdoors, even if it's just for a short period of time each day (citation).

To cut through the clutter, we need to decipher the jargon

To navigate the maze of food labeling, it's crucial to understand what certain key terms mean and the standards behind them.

Here are just a few examples. Notice how broad the definition for each term can be, as well as the variability in how they are or not regulated. Altogether, it creates a lot of gray area within each one.


This term is heavily regulated by the USDA and generally requires that at least 95% of foods labeled as such are produced without synthetic pesticides, genetic modification, and certain fertilizers. They also must adhere to certain animal welfare standards and be certified by an authorized third party (citation).


In contrast, the term “Non-GMO” itself is totally unregulated in the United States – it’s up to corporations how they want to use it. Foods labeled as non-GMO using the common “butterfly” label are certified by a non-governmental organization and independent nonprofit, the NON-GMO Project, to be free of genetically modified organisms. Unlike organic, non-GMO does not address pesticide use (citation).


This term is regulated and suggests animals have some access to the outdoors, though the extent of that access can vary significantly and still be compliant with the regulations (citation).


Perhaps the vaguest of all, "all-natural" can imply the product is minimally processed and without synthetic ingredients, but other than that is largely unregulated. There's no official regulatory definition, making it a less reliable indicator of quality or healthfulness (citation). Unfortunately, this means it’s used very often across the food system, without a lot of substance.

Pay special attention to the order in which ingredients are listed

This can be especially revealing of the nutritional value of a food item. By law, ingredients are listed descending by weight (citation). Therefore, a product that lists “sugar” as its first ingredient but that labels itself as a health food, might be trying to mislead shoppers.

Various packaged foods in a grocery store

Be mindful of companies co-opting terms to create misleading connotations

The food industry often uses certain terms to make consumers think a product is healthier or more sustainable, even though it is not. Take the term "gluten-free.” While this term is important as a disclaimer for folks with celiac disease, rampant use of the term – even when it is irrelevant – has created the impression that gluten is unhealthy. Products labeled "gluten-free" are therefore assumed to be healthier than similar products that contain gluten, even though consuming gluten is not inherently unhealthy to folks without celiac disease (citation).

Another example is how companies use the “Non-GMO” label to imply that products are healthier, even for products where no GMO alternative exists. Thousands of companies do this, with the non-GMO butterfly label on things like wheat flour, strawberries, and garbanzo beans, even though GMO wheat, strawberries, and garbanzo beans don’t exist. But two examples that especially demonstrate the point are non-GMO water and non-GMO salt.

To be clear: neither water nor salt is even capable of being genetically modified. They are not living organisms and thus have no genetic material or genes to modify. But companies like using the label to imply that these products are better for consumers.

Misleading labels have given GMOs a bad reputation, even when they are proven to be safe

The reason companies use “non-GMO” labels – even when they are not contextually relevant – is because they know that to many people, “GMO” carries a negative connotation around health. That connotation benefits those companies, who play up that fear to sell more products.

But as common as it is, the idea that GMOs carry some inherent health risk just isn’t true.

That idea has been debunked time and again – not just by scientific organizations like the World Health Organization and the United States Food and Drug Administration, but also by the global scientific community. There’s been plenty of ink spilled making that point, and we won’t do it justice here. But we will share two ideas we often find ourselves coming back to when it comes to GMO safety:

Idea #1:

Genetic engineering – the technology underlying GMOs – is a tool. The tool itself does not carry any inherent risk, but the resulting products might. Genetic engineering is just a precise way of changing the DNA code, and the act itself of changing it does not create a health issue. Indeed, living things change their DNA constantly, and common practices like plant crossbreeding are simply different ways of changing DNA. What matters in terms of risk and safety is what the DNA was changed to do. That’s why every genetically engineered product must be individually evaluated for health and safety, just like anything else that’s new to the food system. Saying GMOs are inherently safe or unsafe is like saying that any product made with metallurgy is always safe or unsafe. But of course a sword and a spoon have very different safety profiles. So we need to evaluate products individually.

Idea #2:

Genetic engineering should be evaluated relative to the alternatives. One such alternative is selective breeding (or crossbreeding), which humans have been using for millennia to make animals and plants grow faster, taste better, and behave differently. Like genetic engineering, the purpose of selective breeding is to change a plant/animal’s DNA. Unlike genetic engineering, selective breeding is much less precise and more subject to random mutations, often resulting in unintended consequences. Sometimes those consequences are mild, like when plant breeders successfully extended the shelf life of tomatoes, only to find that they’d made those tomatoes taste very bland in the process (citation). Sometimes, though, the results can actually be dangerous, such as when conventional breeding methods were used to produce the Lenape potato. After finding that some of the content in the tubers had a toxin called solanine, it had to be removed from the market. This is an example in which the cross-breeding created an unsafe result.

The upshot of these comparisons is the same: any new product – genetically engineered or not – must be individually evaluated for safety. But being genetically engineered doesn’t make something inherently unsafe.

Just like any tool, genetic engineering can be wielded carefully or recklessly. That is why we strongly advocate for the extensive scientific evaluation of the safety and labeling of all GMO products as a basic tenet of responsible use of genetic engineering.

We put “Proudly GMO” on our bottles because we value transparency and safety

Those following ZBiotics will notice that we do things a bit differently here, as we label every one of our bottles “Proudly GMO.” That’s because we care deeply about being transparent with customers about our use of genetic engineering. In addition, we believe that genetic engineering can do a lot of good for our planet, and we’re proud of our use of the technology to make better products.

That commitment goes beyond talking up our technology; it's about fostering a culture of informed decision-making among consumers. By advocating for clearer, more honest labeling practices and providing great products responsibly made with genetic engineering, we aim to empower individuals to make choices that align with their values and well-being. We’re proud that what we’ve built and the mission we are working towards are enhancing the daily lives of our customers.

ZBiotics enhances daily living, is proudly GMO, and offers the first-of-its-kind probiotics