Updated on 09.15.14

Paying for Meaningless Words and Phrases

Trent Hamm

Every time I go shopping for a food item or a household item, I’m always bombarded with all sorts of nonsensical and largely meaningless terms plastered all over products. The words are often tied to products that, frankly, I view as overpriced for various reasons.

I decided to catalogue a few of these wonderful meaningless words that people pay for.

Meaningless Advertisement Plugs


The “cult of the new” is an expensive one that has a lot of adherents. New products are usually priced quite highly – and usually attract buyers who are simply looking for a “new” experience. At the same time, of course, “new” products are ones that have not stood the test of time. They might be good – they might be awful. For my dollar, I think I’ll stick with a Consumer Reports recommendation and pick up a product that I know works that doesn’t have that “new” premium price.

Now 28% better!

Whenever you see a comparison like this, ask yourself two things: in what way is it better and how is that “better” actually measured? If you read this type of statement and think for a moment, you realize that it could mean anything at all – better blue color in the liquid laundry detergent and so on. Unless the product is precisely stating what the improvement is, such a statement doesn’t have any meaning – or value – at all.


It’s a nice-sounding term that doesn’t mean a thing. Why? There is no official standard for what the word means. There isn’t even a voluntary standard that defines the term. It does not mean that the product won’t cause an allergic reaction. It might, at best, mean that the marketers think that the stuff in the product probably won’t cause an allergic reaction – which really doesn’t mean much at all, does it?


Wouldn’t it be nice if “fragrance free” actually meant that the product doesn’t contain any fragrance? In truth, the product is usually “smell-free” or some attempt at it. Instead of not including a fragrance, what often happens is that a finished product with a fragrance in it has something added to eliminate or mask the smell. If it’s done well enough, marketers will slap this label on it – but if you’re allergic to fragrances, it really doesn’t mean much at all.

All natural

The word “natural” can basically mean anything. There are no standards at all for what this word means. Try this: compare a “natural” product to a similar one that doesn’t have “natural” written on the label and see what exactly is different in the ingredients list. I’ll go ahead and tell you: not much is different.

Never tested on animals

This one actually is true on the shallow surface: the product hasn’t been tested on animals. However, that statement is saying nothing at all about the ingredients that make up the product – most of those were likely tested on animals before they were approved for wide use. There are almost no ingredients in cosmetics and medicines for human use that weren’t already tested on animals.


Such statements usually imply that the product is the best among its competitors. However, when you’re allowing the company to define who the competition is, they usually define that competition as narrowly as possible: “dog foods that use these 25 ingredients and these 6 coloring agents” or something to that effect. It’s easy to be best-of-breed when you’re the only one in the group.


A caveat: when you actually see the USDA Organic label on food products, that label has specific meaning: the item comes from (or the ingredients come from) a farm that lives up to the USDA Organic standards for plant and animal treatment, which encompasses quite a few things – no hormones, no pesticides, and so on. However, the word “organic” is often used in contexts that have nothing to do with farms or the USDA Organic certification – it’s just used as a buzzword for a product that’s trying to sell itself as being “all natural,” as mentioned above.


This is yet another term without any sort of legal definition. Thus, it’s ofen applied to all kinds of things to encourage sales – particularly high-priced fruits, vegetables, juices, and vitamins. Guess what? A well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables of all kinds will take care of your nutrition needs without spending extra money on the exotic semi-bogus “superfood” of the week.


Again, this is a term that has no standard definition and no verification process to ensure that the product meets that non-existent definition. If a manufacturer thinks the product probably won’t kill you if you eat it and doesn’t contain anything that’s blatantly known as a toxic chemical, they can put a “nontoxic” label on it. But if it’s not food, why are you eating it anyway?

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  1. Des says:

    Where have you seen organic that was not certified? It is illegal to use that term on food that has not been certified organic. That being said, even certified organic products only have to be 95% organic to use the label. Still, the term is not without meaning.

    Also, while the ingredients may have been tested on animals at one time, surely all other things being equal it is better that the product itself was not tested on animals. It is not perfect, but again, it is not without meaning.

  2. Arthi says:

    This article does not cite any references that I can visit and learn more, so it seems like a hastily-assembled filler (in spite of your best intentions)

    Like the other commenter said, where have you seen these things happening?

    Or where have you read about these things happening?

    And yes, any ingredient could have been tested on animals in the past, that doesn’t mean the ingredient is evil or that you should shun it.

  3. Johanna says:

    Some others that I’m familiar with:

    “Farm fresh” (or similar) means nothing. On a carton of eggs, for example, it means nothing about the conditions in which the hens are kept.

    “Hormone free” on eggs or poultry meat means nothing, since it’s against the law in the US to give hormones to poultry.

    “Cage free” on poultry meat means nothing, since birds raised for their meat are not kept in cages (they’re kept in crowded sheds). On eggs, it does mean something – that the hens are kept in crowded sheds instead of crowded cages.

    “Free range” on eggs or poultry meat means that the birds are kept in a crowded shed with a door that gives them access to an enclosed outdoor area. But it could be a tiny door and a tiny outdoor area, so that most of the supposedly “free range” birds never actually go outside.

    “Multigrain” does not mean whole grain. Unless it says otherwise, a multigrain product is probably mostly refined white flour. Check the ingredients list if you want to know.

    “Wheat” does not mean whole wheat. “Enriched wheat flour” is refined white flour. Unless it says “whole wheat,” it’s not whole wheat.

    “18 grams of whole grains per serving” is not very much – it’s about a tablespoon. Don’t confuse “grams of whole grains” with “grams of fiber.” (18 grams of fiber, on the other hand, is a lot – more than half of what you need for the day.)

    And finally, a surprising one that does mean something:

    “Healthy” in the name of a product means that it must meet certain standards for fat and sodium. At least, that’s the law – there’s no guarantee that the manufacturer isn’t in violation of the law. Always check the “nutrition facts” label if you want to know about that sort of thing.

  4. Johanna says:

    @Des: At the farmers’ markets where I shop, some of the producers have various ways of saying that they’re organic, but not certified organic. (One uses the made-up word “ecorganic,” and others just say things like “we don’t use any pesticides.”) That’s fair, I think, since organic certification can be difficult and expensive for a small producer to obtain.

    But I don’t know if that’s what Trent’s talking about. It sounds like maybe he’s just talking about using “organic” generally, like referring to a natural foods store in conversation as an “organic store,” even if not everything they sell is certified organic. But that’s not about a label on a particular product.

  5. Allyse says:

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    Thanks for the great content,


  6. sam says:

    “boost your immune system” also means pretty much nothing. And if you could boost your immune system, it would put you at a greater risk.

  7. Kimberly says:

    I will pay more for a product that hasn’t been tested on animals – I want to support companies that don’t test on animals – so that’s meaningful to me.

  8. jim says:

    Use of ‘organic’ labeling on foods is regulated by law. There are stiff fines if people say food is ‘organic’ when it doesn’t meet the government standards.

    I think that Trent is talking about use of the term ‘organic’ on items that are not foods regulated by the USDA. Cosmetics are one area where you *might* see ‘organic’ used in a context that isn’t regulated as food and has virtually no meaning. Organic hair shampoo is an example.

  9. Reader says:

    Where are you getting your information about “Fragrance-free” products? I have a sensitivity and I haven’t noticed any problems with my home and body care products causing rashes as I did before changing.

    I can’t think of anything I use that’s “fragrance free” that didn’t originally have fragrance added (soaps, lotions, etc), and therefore left out in the version I use. Adding and then covering up would be quite silly. It might not be a regulated term but I can’t think of what it could mean other than “we don’t add fragrance to this product” and how it could be so sinisterly abused.

  10. Andrea says:

    I kind of can’t believe someone with toddler-to-preschool-aged children can say “if it’s not food, why are you eating it anyway?” with a straight face.

  11. Amelia says:

    I’m in public health grad school, and there is a lot of discussion over organic and what it actually means, regarding percieved health benefits vs. how the standards define organic labeling. The book Denialism has a pretty interesting discussion about it.

    I think that a lot of us associate organic with the benefits (for both the environment and worker health) of small scale farming, but most of the organic stuff you’ll find in a large supermarket or costco is grown with industrial practices.

    Also, regarding cosmetics and personal care products, the Environmental Working Group has put up “Skin Deep” for anyone who wants to know what ingredients are in their toothpaste, shampoo, or Dr. Bronners.

  12. valleycat1 says:

    Toxic ingredients don’t have to be eaten to affect you. Skin absorption or breathing fumes can be just as dangerous if not more so. Just ask the residents of the Gulf coast or Hungary, as two recent examples.

    I agree with the others that some reference to sources of this info would be helpful in deciding whether these assertions are factual or hype.

  13. Johanna says:

    “Just ask the residents of the Gulf coast or Hungary, as two recent examples.”

    Or ask anyone who took chemistry in college. In my advanced synthesis lab class, we had to study the materials safety data sheets for all the chemicals we’d be using before we used them. For one of the chemicals we were due to use in the very first class, the sheet said “Contact with skin may cause death.” You can bet that I was real, real careful in that class.

  14. Melissa says:

    I think it’s a great post, and if anything, makes us all look more into what we buy, and what labels mean. Some of these things might not matter to some people, but some of them are serious. Thanks for the heads up!!

  15. Michelle says:

    @Andrea – I have preschool and toddler children, and it’s actually pretty easy to only feed them real food. Feed your kids real food, and they’ll eat real food. Kids aren’t born wanting junk, you have to feed it to them first.

  16. Jackie says:

    @Michelle, I think he Andrea was talking about kids putting random things in their mouths, not about feeding kids junk food.

  17. rosa rugosa says:

    @ Michelle – I’m sure that’s what Andrea meant – I personally consumed a lot of paste back in grade school!

  18. Gretchen says:

    He may mean “organic” meat, which does indeed mean nothing.

    It totally does mean something for vegetables/fruit.

  19. Susan D. says:

    “Fragrance free” does in fact mean “fragrance free.” Something that says “unscented” may have a masking fragrace.

  20. Raffle Dog says:

    I agree with Kimberly. I would pay more for a product that isn’t tested on animals. I mean I think it would be impossible to know if every single ingredient wasn’t tested at one point on animals. It would be nice one day if products were totally free of animal testing including all ingredients!

  21. kristine says:

    And the mother of them all: “Purified water”. Of course bottled water is purified-the government required it before it they took it out of the tap! Bottled water is held to a lower standard than tap water, and the big brands are just tap water from another city.

  22. Letit 'Out says:

    I would say regardless of the regulations prescribing how ‘organic’ claims are labelled, the question is “Does it really matter?”. Our parents ate fruits, vegetables (albeit pesticides were likely used and effects not known till now), but organic originally meant growing it in your own backyard for fruit and veg. Does organic really make your life better? Is there a link to longevity and happiness because your vegetables went through more bug attacks??
    If it were not an option then you wouldn’t need it.

  23. christine says:

    As to non-toxic – why are we eating things that aren’t food? I don’t know. Ask my one year old. That’s who I worry about. Obviously, I don’t eat non-food items. However, small children do every chance they get. That non-toxic label is important if it means anything.

  24. almost there says:

    Read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for more about how health and regular industry labels food.

  25. Greg says:

    marmelade “made with selected fruit” – obviously, they have to select the fruits, but which selection criteria (cheapest price?)

    seen in the UK some years ago:
    “97% fat free” milk
    “sugar-free” on a package of butter
    “no fat” on a pack of sugar

  26. Greg says:

    “dermatologically tested” – but no mention about the outcomes of the test

  27. LeahGG says:

    @Rosa Regusa – yes, if you have toddlers, you want to make sure that everything that they’re going to be handling is non-toxic. That includes their crayons, the paint on the walls, the paste, everything.

    And @Michelle, if you keep your children locked up in a closet with no access to other children, you can completely prevent them eating junk food, but the first time they taste chocolate or eat potato chips, they will like them.

    My daughter just started preschool, and I’m REALLY happy with the pre-school for a lot of reasons, but she came home from a party AT SCHOOL with close to a pound of junk food (three closed mini-bags of cheetos/chips/whatever, plus other stuff). We’ve been doling it out bit by bit and making her share it with her brother, and some of it snuck into the trash, but ARGH!!!!

    I also think it backfires. My dad banned all junk from our house for a few years. As soon I made any money, all of it went to junk food. I think if his ban had been a little less strict, I might have been a little less eager to break it.

  28. Phil says:

    One I see a lot, that irritates me, is “made with 100% beef”

    You could start with 1 gram of 100% beef, and mash it up with cardboard and floor scrapings, and you have a burger ‘made with 100% beef’

  29. Gillian` says:

    In the UK ‘organic’ is regulated by the Soil Association. I work in advertising regulation for TV broadcasts (packaging is not regulated as far as I know) and we do not allowe these claims for anything unless we have the Soil Association data. Same with Fairtrade. There used to be a brand of shampoo called Organics, and it had to change its name when the regulations were tightened up.

    Hypoallergenic, fragrance-free and all-natural are claims we would vet very carefully indeed before allowing…by which I mean we’d want ingredient lists, clinical data and a consultant view to vet accuracy.

  30. Andrea says:

    Thank you, Jackie and rosa rugosa, non-food items are exactly what I meant.

  31. Johanna says:

    “Try this: compare a “natural” product to a similar one that doesn’t have “natural” written on the label and see what exactly is different in the ingredients list.”

    OK. I have on my desk a bag of lollipops whose label proclaims “All Natural & Delicious.” (“Delicious,” I’m sure, is also a legally meaningless term, but I can confirm that the lollipops are, in fact, delicious.) Here is the ingredients list:

    “Organic evaporated cane juice, organic tapioca syrup and/or organic rice syrup, citric acid (from beet sugar), natural flavors, may contain organic black carrots, organic black currant, organic pumpkin, organic apple, organic carrot, organic alfalfa.”

    Does anyone have a package of unnatural lollipops, so we can see exactly what is different?

  32. Ella Jo says:

    “I kind of can’t believe someone with toddler-to-preschool-aged children can say “if it’s not food, why are you eating it anyway?” with a straight face.”

    I laughed my head off when you said this, Trent. Andrea summed it up very nicely. If only I could keep my kids (or my dog…) from eating things that aren’t food.

  33. tas says:

    @Johanna (22) No “unnatural lollipops” bc I’ve always hated them, but I googled out of curiosity: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-6/Lollipop.html — suggests that they are made conventionally with : water, sugar, corn syrup, flavorings (both natural and artificial), and malic or citric acid. I’ll take yours any day! (Except for disliking them in general.) In general I find (re: Michael Pollin) that products labeled “natural” or “all natural” have fewer ingredients and ones that I recognize more readily.

    Regarding Trent’s contention that animal testing is a meaningless word, I have to entirely disagree. Even if the ingredients have been tested on animals, we’re reducing some of the cruelty to animals by not testing everything on them. There is some need for animal testing (drug studies come to mind), but I’d rather not have my beauty routine cost that sort of torment. I’m also not entirely sure that I want to put something on my skin that might have been too toxic to begin with!

  34. McTrex says:

    What really annoys me is that there is no one you can take out your frustration on. The store clerk doesn’t know anything about it and can’t help you and the marketing department who came up with the b******t can’t be reached.

    Very frustrating…

  35. lurker carl says:

    From the “artificial flavor chocolate Tootsie Roll Pop” sitting on my desk:

    Sugar, corn syrup, cocoa, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, condensed skim milk, whey, artificial and natural flavors, soya lecithin.

    Not sure which are in the tootsie roll center versus the lollipop. No claim on the wrapper about being delicious but I think just about everyone in North America already knows that it is.

  36. valleycat1 says:

    I learned a long time ago to spend more time reading the back of labels than the front.

    One reason -a family member was extremely allergic to grapes & grape juice, & it’s amazing how many “100% pure juice” brands are mostly grape juice with a little of the kind of juice you think you’re buying (apple, cranberry, etc.) mixed in.

    Johanna & lurker c – it amuses me that Johanna’s natural product has 3 kinds of sugar sources, Carl’s only 2. I’m amazed that the Tootsie Roll Pop ingredients are all recognizable!

  37. Courtney says:

    This brings to mind the “locally grown” trend – people are willing to pay more for locally grown products because they think it is better for the environment, the animals are treated more humanely, etc. Well, sometimes that is true and sometimes it is not.

    I’m a farmer’s daughter and still live right in the heart of farm country and I can tell you that there are plenty of small, family farms that raise their animals in filthy, miserable conditions. And at least in our part of the country, small farmers are the worst violators when it comes to polluting waterways with manure and fertilizer runoff.

    So do your homework before buying and don’t assume that locally grown is always better.

  38. Mister E says:

    I would also suggest “Green” as a meaningless term.

  39. Tracy says:

    Re: locally grown

    I totally agree that it’s still important to learn about individual conditions. But the other emphasis on ‘better for the environment’ on locally grown is that if it’s local, it doesn’t need to be transported long distances – which theoretically means less pollution/energy waste from the transport vehicles.

    I also some people do it because it’s better for the local economy, keeping your dollars in your area and getting at least some positive impact via taxes if nothing else.

  40. Mikkel Nordvig says:

    When you mention the word “natural”, an interesting conversation I once had with a young girl comes to mind. It evolved around the topic “drugs”. During this conversation, the girl stated, that if she were to try any drug, it would have to be cocaine, because, and I quote: “its a natural product”. The point of this being, that the gruesome chemical that is cocaine, originates from nice, green leaves from plants in the Natural Kingdom of the South American jungle.
    Tobacco, my friends, is “natural”, heroin is natural, dozens of funghi that will kill a grown man in the most painful way, are natural. In fact, EVERYTHING is natural, if you trace it back long enough. You cant synthesize anything without starting with something that ,somewhere back in the proces, started out “natural”. Being eaten by an alligator is a “natural” way to go. You will surely be a part of the circle of life if such a beast sinks its teeth in you – but I still wouldn´t recommend it as a part of a healthy lifestyle! Nature is life, death, sickness and health and everything that surround us – it is not a slogan!

  41. Johanna says:

    I don’t know whether this makes me part of a trend, but I pay more for locally grown fruits and vegetables because they taste better. Farmers that sell directly to consumers have an incentive to grow things that taste good. Farmers that sell through middlemen (who mix up the produce of all different farmers) have an incentive to favor quantity over quality.

  42. Ajtacka says:

    This reminds of a webcomic from xkcd: http://xkcd.com/641/.
    “Get the one that’s asbestos-free!”

  43. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    @Des and Arti,
    My local whole foods has rows and rows of items that are labeled organic despite there being no such standard for items like cosmetics, detergents and clothing. Organic is regulated only when it comes to food. Everything else is labeled based on however the manufacturer and vendor want them to be.

    Please do some research before rushing to post comments that are so negative.

    And I’d like to second Almost There’s comment on reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma. A great book that will teach you a lot about the meaning of various labels and ingredients.

  44. Marie A says:

    I agree to most of your points, but some recent research on my part finds a couple disturbing things that I’m trying to share with many of my friends who generally are just as clueless as I was:

    There are over 82,000 chemicals in use in the U.S., with some 700+ new ones added each year. Of those 82,000, only 650 are monitored through TRI, and only 200 have ever been tested for toxicity, and only FIVE have been banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act (not even asbestos is banned). You CANNOT assume that the chemicals in the products you use are tested, or that the test results, even if they had a bad outcome, stopped the company from releasing their product to the market. There are several known toxins in everyday products that cause severe biological issues, but they’re still on the market, and they may not even be listed in your products due to trade laws. Even if a product says it’s toxin free, that’s just because the chemicals in it haven’t been put on the known toxins list. The rule is innocent until proven guilty, even in the realm of chemicals put out into the mass market. And it’s REALLY hard to prove a chemical guilty.

    I’m not trying to be an alarmist, I just think more people should know, learn, and pay attention to understand the difference between marketing hype and good wholesome products, even in the “green” marketplace.

  45. Michelle says:

    I’m just saying that some people get caught up in the idea that there are “kid foods” and “adult foods”. There aren’t. Kids will eat what you give them. I’m not talking about a junk food ban, I’m talking about giving your kids real food. There’s a difference.

  46. WendyH says:

    @ Marie A: that’s what I’ve heard as well, my understanding is also that “no-voc” doesn’t necessarily mean “non-toxic” (in a paint for example), the only way to know for a product like paint is look at the MSDS and see what warnings it has.

    from the USDA website on Organic Labeling: “USDA certified organic” label is for 95% – 100% organic ingredients, “made with organic ingredients” marketing term allowed for above 70%, and anything below that can still list individual organic ingredients only on the ingredients label. There is also a list of synthetic substances allowed in food processing that still qualify for the organic label.

  47. SwingCheese says:

    @Valleycat – I agree! I’ve been buying 100% juice for my toddler, so I’ve been checking out the labels, and, well, it would appear that when he drinks juice, it is almost 100% apple juice, every time. Good thing he loves apples in all forms :)

    re: green and organic – I, too, can say that I’ve been to grocery stores where apparently everything is organic, down to the paper towels and paper grocery bags, which always made me snicker. However, only food can be labelled USDA organic (even meat, I think, but the producers still have to meet government standards). “Green”, however, is as meaningless as “natural” – there is no standard that products must meet when claiming this on their labels. And that became VERY apparent to me when Lysol and Clorox all of a sudden became “green”.

  48. Andrea says:

    @Michelle: I respect what you are saying and I agree with you, but I don’t understand where people are getting the idea that I am “caught up in the idea that there are ‘kid foods’ and ‘adult foods'”. I disagree with that assertion, as you do – we are not opposed on this matter. But I think you are misunderstanding my original post – as Jackie and others pointed out, I was making a remark about the tendency of little kids to put NON-food items in their mouths – not things that aren’t “real food”, but things like paste and crayons that aren’t food by any definition.

  49. Mol says:

    This was a great article. Another great, albeit probably shorter, article would be which Words and Phrases actually have merit.

  50. I’m in complete agreement with including the word “organc” in this list.

    It is probably one of the most overused, misused temrs in food today.

    If you look closely, you’ll find that a lot of foods marked as organic are really no different at all from their non-organic counterparts–except the price!

  51. SLCCOM says:

    Asbestos is a mineral. It is not a chemical, which is why it is not listed under TSCA. Asbestos has saved many, many lives because of the fires that did not happen. Asbestos was mandated for use for over a century, and by far most of the people who get mesothelioma are also tobacco addicts. Tobacco addiction multiplies the risk of mesothelioma ten-fold. Now we are using fiberglass for fire prevention, which has the same physical characteristics as asbestos.

    Given that we are all living longer, as a population, it is fallacious thinking to decide that there are X chemicals and only Y have been tested and only Z have been banned.

  52. Suchi says:

    I completely agree….we do end up paying more for funny names!:)

  53. Suchi says:

    i completely agree….we do end paying more for terms which dont really matter!

  54. Gretchen says:

    “Local” could also mean anything. :) Or, at least a different radius.

  55. Bryan says:

    Organic may not always mean no pesticides. An organic farmer has the ability to petition to the certification board to use pesticides at the risk of losing crops. If granted by the board they can still claim the organic label.

    Truth is if you want 100% organic foods grow your own.

  56. Diane says:

    My personal favorite is “all natural”. “It’s all natural so it’s good for you.” Then I point out that arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine are also all natural.

  57. By far the most meaningless phrase ever to appear on any product sold in commerce is…”chemical-free”. This inane phrase appears on cosmetics, sunscreens, lip balm and other personal care products as an apparent substitute for “toxicant-free” or “synthetic-chemical-free”. Since every substance on this earth is made of chemicals no product should bear the label chemical free.

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