Organic. Non-GMO. Grass-fed. Cage-free. Natural. Ever wonder what all of these labels mean? There are a lot out there! Well, its time to bring an end to the grocery store confusion. I strongly believe that, as consumers, we should know what is going into the food that we eat and where we are putting our dollars. Below I’ve created a handy dandy guide that you can use to figure out what type of food products to buy that work best for you, your health and your lifestyle.

  • Antibiotic-free means that an animal was not given any antibiotics during its lifetime. For poultry, hogs and other livestock, this means that there are no antibiotics in their feed. For cattle, this means they are not injected with any antibiotics.
  • Fair trade means that farmers and workers received a fair wage and worked in acceptable living conditions while growing and packaging the product you are purchasing. This is typically in developing countries. One common place I always see this label is with coffee.
  • Cage-free means that birds (poultry) have been raised without cages. It does not specify whether the birds were raised indoors or outdoors nor whether or not they were raised in crowded conditions. Only pasture-raised (below) means that they were raised outdoors.
  • Free-range is very similar to cage-free in that it applies to egg and poultry production only. It means that the birds are allowed access to the outdoors, but not necessarily that they spent the majority of their time outdoors. It does not mean cruelty-free or antibiotic-free. Free-range is not verified by a third party inspector and USDA regulations do not specify the amount, duration, or quality of outdoor access provided to these animals.
  • GMO-free, Non-GMO means that the product is not a genetically modified organism. Genetically modified organisms are plants or animals that have been altered at the gene level. This means that the product has been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants/animals. Common GMO products are those containing soy, corn or their derivatives (soy protein isolates, corn starch, high fructose corn syrup). Health risks of consuming GMO foods have not been clearly identified.
  • Grain-fed means that the animal was raised on a grain diet. If you see the label “100% vegetarian diet”, this means that the animal was given feed that contains no animal by-products. Yep, you heard that right, factory raised animals are fed animal by-products.
  • Grass-fed animals eat their natural diet, grass, rather than grains. This was the diet these animals ate for years and years before industrialized farming came to be. Grass-fed animals are typically more lean and lower in fat and calories. They are not fed any grain, animal by-products (!), synthetic hormones or antibiotics. But this doesn’t mean they ate grass their entire lives. Some are grain-finished, which means they are fed grain right before slaughter. Make sure to look for grass-fed and grass-finished on your label if you are concerned about this. Also keep in mind that USDA grass-fed stipulations do not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.
  • Healthy is kind of a broad claim, but means that the product is low in saturated fat and has limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. It must also contain a least 10% of vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber. Better than unhealthy though, right?
  • Heritage is a cool one. It means that the livestock or crop is a rare and endangered breed. These breeds are the traditional livestock that were raised by farmers way back when before industrialized farming and agriculture brought about a drastic reduction in breed variety. They are prized for their rich taste and higher fat content. There are no laws governing production standards, but true heritage farmers follow sustainable production methods required by organic farmers. Ever heard of heirloom tomatoes? Bingo.
  • Hormone-free is a term that has been prohibited by the USDA. By law, hogs and poultry cannot be given hormones, but the USDA does allow the use of a number of hormones on beef. Animals raised without added growth hormones can be labeled as “no hormones administered” or “no added hormones”.
  • Natural is a standard that only applies to meat and poultry. It means that the product has only undergone minimal processing and does not contain any artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or ingredients. It does not necessarily mean that the product is sustainable, organic, cruelty-free or free of hormones or antibiotics.
  • Non-irradiated means food that has not been exposed to radiation. Come again? You’re telling me some of our food is exposed to radiation? Yep. This commonly occurs to kill disease-causing bacteria and reduce the incidence of food borne illness. No testing has been done to determine whether this is bad for us. Still, call me skeptical…
  • Pasture-raised means that animals were allowed to mill about on their own in the fields and eat grasses and other plants all day long. In this method, the animals are raised in a more humane way and can carry out their natural behaviors.  Just picture content cows grazing in a fenced in pasture and happy pigs rolling around in the mud...
  • Organic is a term that requires farms and products to meet a number of standards set by the USDA - 1) farms must abstain from application of prohibited materials (fertilizers, pesticides) for 3 years prior to certification and must main this practice; 2) use of GMOs and irradiation is prohibited; 3) farms must use positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices; 4) livestock must be provided with access to pastures; 5) no antibiotics or hormones can be used; 6) all feed given to animals must be 100% organic; 7) contamination must be avoided during processing; and 8) farms must keep records of all operations. When you see a product with the USDA organic seal, this means that 95-100% of its ingredients are certified organic. Organic products are also free of trans fats or any hydrogenated products. The USDA does not inspect organic products imported from foreign countries when they come into the country and hires third parties to do inspections of these foreign farms.
  • RBGH-free, RBST-free refers or types of hormones given to cattle, specifically recombinant bovine growth hormone (RBGH) and recombinant bovine somatotropin (RBST). These are genetically engineered hormones injected into cows to increase milk production. They are banned in the European Union, Canada, and other countries. Organic products are free of these hormones.

This may be a ton of information to take in at once, but I think the bottom line is to know where you food comes from. Read the label of the meat you buy at your local grocery, read the sign in the produce section about where your broccoli is from, and talk to your local farmer when you hit up the farmers’ market to learn about his/her farming practices. When you are more involved in this process, you will be more aware of the food you put into your body and its affect on your life and health.

Photo credit:  CC image courtesy of mgstanton on flickr

Published by Anna Young