What Does That Food Label Mean?

There are many confusing labels on our food these days. Organic, natural, non-GMO, pasture-raised, etc. I am thankful our food industry empowers consumers to make more informed decisions about what they are putting in their mouths, but unless you take the time to research what these definitions really mean, you may find yourself misunderstanding and falling for marketing gimmicks. To ensure you are making the most educated purchases for your family’s health, here are some Cliff notes on these labels.

Natural: This unregulated term can mean a variety of things. “Natural” meat and eggs means that no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives were used (although antibiotics and hormones can be used) and the products were minimally processed. But in other “natural” foods, there are no clear, regulated guidelines. With that, be sure to read further down on the nutrition label to see if the company specifies in detail what they mean by “natural”. Sometimes more details are provided.

Organic: Any product labeled as “made with organic ingredients” must have at least 70% organically made ingredients. To be labeled as U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic means all ingredients in the product have passed organic standards. The organic farmers have passed annual inspections looking at everything from their seeds and soil, weed and pest control, animal care, any additives, etc. The animals bred for organic meat are fed organic feed and cannot be given antibiotics or hormones. The soil growing organic food cannot have had any prohibited chemicals for at least 3 years. There are some allowed substances in organically labeled food. All allowed substances are brought to a formal review board and agreed upon. This list is available on the USDA website and includes not only substances likes vitamins, minerals, alcohols, and natural waxes, but also substances like carrageenan and xanthan gum. As such, read your nutrition labels closely if you have food intolerances, as even organic foods can have sensitive ingredients. Like the allowed foods, there is also a list of strictly prohibited substances, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is available on the USDA website.

GMO: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or bioengineered, means that the plant, animal, or microorganism has had its DNA modified. This is often done to help resist pests and lethal environments and increase crop yields. The USDA states that GMO foods for both human and livestock consumption has been shown to be as safe as non-GMO foods. To date, there has been no substantial evidence proving GMO foods to be unsafe to consume, and GMO foods continue to be common in the USA (ex. corn and soy). However, consumption safety cannot be 100% guaranteed, and long-term data is not yet known on these foods.

Pasture-Raised/Free-Range/Cage-Free/Grass-fed: These labels are also confusing for consumers, and for good reason, as these labels are next to useless. Sometimes pasture-raised or free-range means the animals/birds had access through a hole in the barn for a few seconds, while other may have spent a majority of their day grazing outside. Usually pasture-raised do spend a majority of their lives outside, but not always. Grass-fed meat should mean the animals were purely grass-fed since being weaned, up until day of their slaughter. That being said, some animals need to spend time inside feedlots during bad weather, while other animals are simply “grass finished”. Read the labels closely. Your best bet if you want true grass-fed meat and pasture-raised poultry and eggs and is buy locally and know the farming practices of your community farmers. If you cannot buy locally, look for The American Grass-fed Association Approved label. The American Grass-fed Association is a nonprofit that certifies grass-fed meat. They have strict standards that their certified cattle are only fed grass throughout their lives and no antibiotic or hormones are ever given.

Take home messages are: Buy locally if able to. Don’t just read the cover of the package, but rather read the full nutrition label. Not all stores will carry grass-fed or pasture-raised, and organic produce may be limited. Concentrate your efforts on the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen produce, and buy organic, grass-fed/pasture-raised meats and eggs if affordable.