What Food Labels Really Mean

"All-natural," "free range," "organic"—do you know the definitions of these common food label terms? Be a smarter shopper at the grocery store with this handy guide to what food labels really mean

beef food label

Grocery shopping can be hard enough without the added complication of deciphering all the seals, stamps, labels and buzz words on food packages. Use this handy food label guide to know exactly what you’re buying and get through the supermarket even faster.

To get the coveted “organic” seal, food must meet the requirements set by the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At least 95% of the ingredients must be organic—meaning they weren’t produced with any antibiotics, pesticides, synthetic growth hormones, irradiation or biotechnology. The other 5% of the ingredients must also appear on an approved USDA list. Food with at least 70% organic ingredients can be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”

The laws about using word “natural” apply only to meat, poultry and egg products. These foods can’t have artificial ingredients or added color and should be “minimally processed,” which means that they were processed in a way that did not fundamentally alter the food. Outside of meat, poultry and eggs, labeling something “natural” goes largely unregulated. It’s often used by companies as a marketing technique. Read package ingredients carefully.

Non-GMO Project Verified
Currently, there are no regulations for labeling foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). About 90% of the corn and soy grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, so, chances are, you’ve eaten a GMO. If you would like to eliminate GMOs from your diet, look for the label “Non-GMO Project Verified.” The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that evaluates the way each food product is made.

Certified Naturally Grown
A “certified naturally grown” seal is an alternative to the “certified organic” label. To be included in the USDA’s National Organic Program, farms must apply and pay a fee. That’s not always feasible for a small family farm. “Certified naturally grown food” follows the same standards as organic food, but is verified by a non-profit organization called—what else?—Certified Naturally Grown.

Grass-fed animals eat their mother’s milk and “forage,” which includes grass and other plants found in the pasture. They can also be fed hay or other dried forage. Also, these animals must have access to a pasture during the growing season.

Raised Without Antibiotics
Just like people, animals take antibiotics when they’re sick. This label certifies that antibiotics were never given during the life of the animal.

Fair Trade
The regulations for fair trade foods are overseen by the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO). The fair trade label focuses less on what’s in the food and more on the environment where it’s grown. 

You’ll see this term on eggs and poultry packages. It means the animals have access to the outdoors, weather permitting. There are no specifics in the USDA rules about how big the outdoor area needs to be or how long the animals have access to it. Free-range animals also must have continuous access to fresh food and water and can also forage. 

These hens roam in a barn or poultry house with unlimited access to food and water. They most likely do not have access to the outdoors (or else they would be labeled “free-range”).

No Added Hormones
This is important only for beef and dairy products, as federal regulations prohibit hormones in poultry and pork.