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15 Confusing Food Labels And What They Actually Mean

I remember when my family and I started reading labels and ingredients on food. My trips to the grocery store lasted so much longer and I would come home with a headache from all the brain power it required.

I used to think, “It shouldn’t be this hard.” But the truth is that there are a lot of labels to navigate and we need to be wise about what we choose to purchase.

Have you ever felt this way? Here is a brief guide through some confusing labels to help you on your next shopping trip.

1. ANTIBIOTIC-FREE

“Antibiotic-free” means that an animal has not been injected with antibiotics. Other labels that indicate the same approach include “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics.”

2. CAGE-FREE

“Cage-free” means that the birds are raised without cages. What this does not indicate is whether the birds were raised outdoors on a pasture or if they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions such as a factory farm. If you would like to purchase eggs, poultry, or meat that is raised outdoors, look for a label that says “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”

3. FAIR TRADE

The “fair trade” label means that farmers and workers, often in developing countries, have received a fair wage and worked in acceptable conditions while growing and packaging the product.  You can find more info on fair trade here.

4. FREE-RANGE

“Free-range” or “free-roaming” are only defined by the USDA for egg and poultry production. This label can be used as long as the birds are allowed 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. Claims are defined by the USDA, but are not verified by third-party inspectors.

5. GMO-FREE, NON-GMO, OR NO GMOS

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. Products labeled “GMO-free” are produced without being genetically engineered through the use of GMOs.

6. GRAIN-FED or Vegetarian Diet

Animals raised on a grain diet are labeled “grain-fed.” Check the label for a “100% vegetarian diet” claim to ensure the animals were given feed containing no animal by-products. However, be aware that most “vegetarian diet can mean that the animals are fed corn. If the products are not Organic, than the corn fed to the animals are most likely GMO. 

7. GRASS-FED

This means the animals were fed grass rather than grains. In addition to being more humane, grass-fed meat is more lean 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 – although they may 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.”

8. 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 or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber. The label “Healthy” does not necessarily mean that it is nutritious for you. Reading ingredients is a better source for determining if something is nutritious. 

9. HERITAGE

A “heritage” label describes a rare and endangered breed of livestock or crops. Heritage breeds are traditional livestock that were raised by farmers in the past, before industrial agriculture drastically reduced breed variety. These animals are prized for their rich taste, and they usually contain a higher fat content than commercial breeds. Production standards are not required by law, but true heritage farmers use sustainable production methods. This method of production saves animals from extinction and preserves genetic diversity.

10. HORMONE-FREE

The USDA has prohibited use of the term “hormone-free,” but animals that were raised without added growth hormones can be labeled “no hormones administered” or “no added hormones.” By law, hogs and poultry cannot be given any hormones. If the meats you are buying are not clearly labeled, ask your farmer or butcher if they are free from hormones.

11. NATURAL

Currently, no standards exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines state that “natural” meat and poultry products 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.

12. NON-IRRADIATED

This label means that the food has not been exposed to radiation. Meat and vegetables are sometimes irradiated (exposed to radiation energy) to kill disease-causing bacteria and reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. No thorough testing has been done to know if irradiated food is safe for human consumption.

13. PASTURE-RAISED

“Pasture-raised” indicates that the animal was raised on a pasture where it was able to eat nutritious grasses 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 are able to move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors. This term is very similar to “grass-fed,” though the term “pasture-raised” indicates more clearly that the animal was raised outdoors on pasture.

14. ORGANIC

All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines (verified by a USDAapproved independent agency):

  • Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for three years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.
  • Prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms and irradiation.
  • Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation practices.
  • Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.
  • Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.
  • Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.
  • Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.
  • Keep records of all operations.

If a product contains the “USDA Organic” seal, it means that 95 to 100% of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70 to 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.

15. RBGH-FREE OR RBST-FREE

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is a genetically engineered growth hormone that is injected into dairy cows to artificially increase their milk production. The hormone has not been properly tested for safety and is not permitted in the European Union, Canada, and some other countries. Milk labeled “ rBGH-Free” is produced by dairy cows that never received injections of this hormone. Organic milk is rBGH free.

 **Content adapted from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition**

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Kimberly Stewart
Kimberly Stewart
mrskimberlystewart@gmail.com

I am a wife, mom of 4, friend and neighbor and understand how hard it can be to implement health in our busy lives! I am an Integrative Holistic Health Coach and passionate about empowering others towards wellness in their everyday lives!