You walk into the grocery store with full intentions to fill your cart with healthy foods. But this is not a simple quest once you’re faced with trying to decipher all the labels: “natural” versus “all-natural,” “organic” versus “raised without antibiotics,” “free-range” versus “cage-free.” To help you successfully navigate the food aisles, here’s what the most common labels really mean.
These labels are supported by farmers and processors and are also certified and tested by a third party regulatory agency.
Agricultural products labeled as “organic” are regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Organic foods cannot be either produced or processed with synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, biotechnology, synthetic ingredients or irradiation. Products whose label says “made with organic ingredients” contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients but will not have the USDA organic seal.
Products such as coffee, tea, cocoa, rice and herbs and spices often have a label that says “fair trade certified.” Fair trade products must be made in such a way that supports development socially, economically and environmentally, as enforced by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) or by Fair Trade USA in the U.S. People involved in producing fair trade products must also receive fair wages, safe working conditions and the right to join trade unions.
There are certification standards for ruminant animals—or animals that chew cud and have split hooves—such as domestic cattle, bison, deer, lamb and goats. The USDA requires that ruminant animals be fed only grass and forage during the growing season. The American Grassfed Association is one organization that certifies that ruminant animals are fed only on pasture and are raised without antibiotics, synthetic hormones or confinement.
The following labels are only supported by farmers and processors, who make sure their products meet each standard, but they generally are not certified or tested by a third party regulatory agency.
Raised without antibiotics
On many industrial farms, animals are raised in overcrowded and/or unsanitary living conditions. To keep those animals in good health, they are often given antibiotics. Meat or dairy with this label means the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics.
GE-free (genetically-engineered)/Non-GMO (genetically-modified organism)
Some companies choose to label their food products “GE-free” or “non-GMO” in order to inform consumers, but these labels are not federally regulated. Individual companies or organizations regulate food products labeled “GE-free” or “non-GMO,” but each company or organization chooses how much or their product can contain genetically-engineered ingredients or genetically-modified organisms—whether it’s 10 percent or 0 percent.
These labels are used if a farmer has not injected his or her animals with any artificial growth hormones or steroids. Animal products without this label may have been raised with hormones like rBGH, a genetically-engineered growth hormone.
“Ambiguous labels” is not actually an industry term, but the labels below are neither certified by a third party regulatory agency nor do they adhere to a set of specific standards.
Contrary to popular belief, there is actually no universal definition for “all natural” labeling or packaging. So while some products labeled as “natural” may be minimally-processed and contain minimal chemicals, it is very difficult to know whether this is the case.
Poultry labeled as “free-range” don’t live in cages, but they might spend a lot of time indoors. The definition only requires the chickens to spend some amount of time outdoors, but doesn’t specify whether they need to be outside on a daily basis or monthly basis or for how long. There are currently no standard definitions for free-range beef, pork or free-range chicken eggs.
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Multimedia journalist with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a master’s in Broadcast Journalism and Public Affairs