Remove from Favorites Add to Favorites Remove from Favorites Add to Favorites



Photo Credit: Aubrie Pick

Food Labels Explained: What Do All Those Terms Really Mean?

18 July 2019
by Giadzy
Photo Credit: Aubrie Pick
You must be signed in to print this content

What do all those food labels at the grocery store really mean? We've got the scoop.

Pasture-raised. All-natural. Organic. Cage free. When we shop for food, we're bombarded by tons of food labels - many of which make us feel better about the purchase we're making. While a lot of these labels do mean what they say, some of them are misleading, and we're here to debunk them to help you be your most informed self when you shop.

Some of them are blatantly silly - for example, do we really need a bottle of cranberry juice to boast that it's gluten free? However, some of the labels are much more disingenuous and maybe even intentionally ambiguous - or designed to make us conjure up an image in our head of what we think they mean. For example, when we see "cage free," we imagine animals having the freedom to roam without cages, and it makes us feel better about the purchase. The actual answer is a much more grim reality, but one we really ought to face if we want to buy from ethical farms. Read on to get the actual low-down on what each and every label means, simplified.

All Natural

We'll start with perhaps the most misleading food label of them all: all natural. For starters, there is no difference between "natural" and "all-natural" on food labels. By definition from the USDA, an "all natural" food needs to be free of artificial ingredients or preservatives, and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, this doesn't include antibiotics or hormones. While it still seems like it might be a better choice than food that doesn't say "all natural," unfortunately, the regulations on this term are extremely lenient. Every brand can essentially create its own definition, as the government only provides guidelines for what can and can't be considered natural - not actual regulations.

Of course, when a product is labeled with "all natural," it doesn't automatically mean it's not good for you, either. It comes down to reading the ingredients yourself, and being an informed shopper in this case.


Cage Free

The USDA definition of cage free is as follows: "Eggs packed in USDA grade-marked consumer packages labeled as cage free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle." That doesn't sound so bad! However, since eggs are such a widely sold commodity, many farms will take advantage of this definition to maximize egg production. In many cases, this means that the hens live in something called a "growout house," which while they don't live in cages, they can be packed in with thousands of other birds. Ultimately, they only end up with less than a square foot of room - which is marginally better than caged (where birds only get 8 square inches) but not by much.

Again, while this is a harsh reality of when the system is abused, it doesn't mean that every chicken is treated this way when you buy a carton of cage-free eggs. To ensure that the hens were treated ethically, look for the terms "Animal Welfare Approved," "Certified Humane Raised and Handled," or "American Humane Certified".


Free Range

Free range has a similar definition to cage free, with one difference - it means that chickens were given continuous access to the outdoors. In reality, it means that there was a way for the chickens to exit their growhouse to go outside... but it doesn't guarantee that any of the chickens actually ever stepped foot outside. For all we know, it could be a small door that opens up to a concrete patio. Not exactly what you imagine when we think of the word "free-range," huh?

We know - it's all so frustratingly misleading! To ensure you're buying the best eggs from happy hens, look for the following label...

Pasture Raised

For both dairy and egg labels, you'll sometimes see "pasture raised". This term isn't actually regulated by the USDA. However, look for the "Certified Humane" or "Animal Welfare Approved" labels - in order to obtain this label, it means animals were given ample space to roam outdoors, in an actual pasture. Now that's what we're talking about! We want our dairy and beef to come from happy cows, and our eggs to come from happy hens. This is the one label where you can almost guarantee that you're supporting ethical practices. See - it's not all bleak! You just need to know what to look for.



We hear the word "organic" thrown all around - but what does it mean exactly? At the most basic level, organic food was cultivated without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, or sewage sludge, or radiation. For meat and dairy, it means that the animal wasn't given growth hormones or antibiotics. When it comes to organic food, you'll see the label in several different forms: "100% Organic", "Organic", or "Made With Organic Ingredients". Don't worry - this one isn't so misleading! This label has the most specific criteria and legal weight. 100% organic means that the entire product contains only organically produced ingredients. "Organic" means the product has to be made with 95% organically produced ingredients. "Made With Organic Ingredients" means 70%. When it comes to buying produce, organic is always better, but not always completely necessary - we always turn to the dirty dozen list for produce that you should always buy organic.

Okay, so now that we know all that, what's our best practice for shopping for new food? There are several phone applications that can help debunk all these labels for us - and while we can't rely on those for every single food out there, it can help teach us which ingredients to look out for and which to avoid. Shop locally when possible, and do a quick Google search on farms you're purchasing from. Specialty butcher shops for meat and dairy can also give good insight to where the products are coming from. The bottom line? The more informed we are at shopping for our food, the better!


Please sign in or create an account to leave a comment.