New food labels appear all the time. Natural, organic, and grass-fed are printed in big bold letters all over containers, but do you really know what they mean?
Food labels can be a great indicator of where your food came from and how it was produced. However, for some labels, no standards exist.
Knowing what food labels mean, can help you make a healthier decision on what product to buy. Below is a list of popular food labels and what they mean.
- Antibiotic-free: means that an animal was not given antibiotics during its lifetime. Other phrases to indicate the same approach include “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics.”
- Cage-free: means that the birds are raised without cages. What this doesn’t explain is whether the birds were raised outdoors on pasture or if they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions. If you are looking to buy eggs, poultry, or meat that was raised outdoors, look for a label that says “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”
- Free-range: The use of the terms free-range or free-roaming are only defined by the USDA for egg and poultry production. The label can be used as long as the producers allow the bird’s access to the outdoors so that they can engage in natural behaviors. It does not necessarily mean that the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic-free or that the animals spent the majority of their time outdoors.
- GMO-free, non-GMO, or no GMOs: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. Products can be labeled GMO-free if they are produced without being genetically engineered through the use of GMOs.
- Grass-fed: This means the animals were fed grass, their natural diet, rather than grains. In addition to being more humane, grass-fed meat is leaner and lower in fat and calories than grain-fed meat. Grass-fed animals are not fed grain, animal by-products, synthetic hormones, or antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease; they may, however, have been given antibiotics to treat disease. A grass-fed label doesn’t mean the animal necessarily ate grass its entire life. Some grass-fed cattle are grain-finished, which means they ate grain from a feedlot prior to slaughter. Look for grass-fed and grass-finished.
- Healthy: Foods labeled healthy must be low in saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Certain foods must also contain at least 10% of the following nutrients: vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber.
- Natural: No standards currently exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines state that meat and poultry products labeled natural can only undergo minimal processing and cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, natural foods are not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics.
- Pasture-raised: indicates that the animal was raised on a pasture where it was able to eat grass and other plants rather than being fattened on grain in a feedlot or barn. Pasturing livestock and poultry is a traditional farming technique that allows animals to be raised in a humane manner. Animals can move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors. This term is very similar to grass-fed, but the term pasture-raised more clearly indicates that the animal was raised outdoors on pasture.
- Organic: All organic agricultural farms and products must meet guidelines (verified by a USDA-approved independent agency). If a product contains the USDA organic seal, it means that 95%–100% of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70%–95% organic ingredients can still advertise “organic ingredients” on the front of the package and products with less than 70% organic ingredients can identify them on the side panel. Organic foods prohibit the use of hydrogenation and trans fats. The USDA organic label has among the strongest standards for environmental sustainability including prohibiting synthetic fertilizers and industrial pesticides. Animal feed must be 100% organically produced and without animal byproducts or daily drugs. GMOs are prohibited (though testing is not required).
- Non-GMO Project Verified: Products and their ingredients are either tested for the presence of DNA from genetically modified organisms or audited to ensure they don’t contain products of genetic engineering. Because GMOs are so widely used in the food industry, the Non-GMO Project cannot guarantee that products are completely free of GMO residue; however, tested samples of certified feed must routinely contain less than 5% ingredients from GMOs. For ingredients that do not contain enough intact DNA for testing, their production process must be audited to demonstrate low risk of contamination. Non-GMO is not necessarily organic (though all organic is non-GMO). It also does not address pesticides or other chemicals used in feed or drug use in animals themselves.