The Sprout Guide To Decoding Food Label Claims

Photo by Francesca Alfano at Stone Hill Barns

Are you feeling confused by all the food labeling claims appearing on food packages and menus?! New food label claims seem to arise regularly and I understand how frustrating it can be sorting through these often misleading labels. To help navigate the confusion,  I put together a glossary of commonly used food label words and phrases that speak to the health, ethical and social concerns of consumers. This is a great guide to help make educated decisions when it comes to your food.


ANTIBIOTIC FREE: “Antibiotic-free” means that an animal was not given antibiotics during its lifetime.  Other phrases to indicate the same approach include “no antibiotics administered” and 
“raised without antibiotics.”

CAGE FREE: “Cage-free” means that the birds are raised without cages. What this doesn’t explain is whether the birds were raised outdoors on pasture, if they had access to outside, or if 
they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions. If you are looking to buy eggs, poultry, or meat that was raised outdoors, look for a label that says “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”

FREE RANGE: The use of the term "Free Range" or "Free Roaming" are only defined by the USDA for egg and poultry production.  This label can only be used as long as the producers allow the poultry access to the outdoors so they are able to engage in natural behaviors. It does not necessarily mean the products are cruelty free, 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. 

FARMED FISH: This refers to the rapidly growing industry that raises and feeds fish for human consumption in tanks or large wire pens anchored in coastal areas or other large bodies of water. Also called aquaculture, fish farming is expanding to offset the global decline in the wild fish catch. Fifty percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is now farmed. The use of open ponds and net pens or cages allows ocean water to flow freely through them. These enclosures pollute local waters with fish waste, excess feed and antibiotics and spread disease and parasites to sensitive wild marine species. 

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.

GMO-FREE, NON-GMO, OR NO GMOs: Products can be labeled “GMO-free” if they 
are produced without being genetically engineered through the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Genetic engineering is the process of transferring specific traits or genes from one organism into a different plant or animal. 

GRAIN-FED: Animals raised on a diet of grain are labeled “grain-fed.” Check the label for “100 Percent Vegetarian Diet” to ensure the animals were given feed containing no animal by-products.

GRASS- FED: Animals are fed grass rather than grain. This should not be supplemented with grain, animal by-products, synthetic hormones, or giving antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease, although they may have been given antibiotics to prevent disease. A "grass fed" label does not necessarily mean the animal ate grass throughout its entire life. Some "grass-fed" cattle are "grain-finished", which means they ate grain from a feedlot prior to slaughter. 

HERITAGE: A “heritage” label describes a rare and endangered breed of livestock and crops. 
Heritage animals are prized for their rich taste, and they usually contain a higher fat content 
than commercial breeds. These animals are considered purebreds and a specific breed 
near extinction. 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. 

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 products 
are not clearly labeled, ask your farmer or butcher to ensure that the meats you are 
buying are free from hormones.

HEALTHY: Foods labeled “healthy” must be low in fat and saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Certain foods must also contain at least 10 percent of vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.

KOSHER: Kosher refers to foods acceptable for those of the Jewish faith who observe dietary laws prescribed in the Torah. For meat, a kosher label indicates that a trained professional called a “shochet” slaughtered the animal in a specific manner. Kosher guidelines do not restrict growth hormones, pesticides in feed or antibiotics.

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. 

Non-GMO Project Verified: The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that provides the only third-party labeling program in North America for products grown without using genetic engineering. They verify that the process products go through, from seed to shelf, are produced according to their rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance.

NON-IRRADIATED: This label means that the food has not been exposed to radiation. Meat and vegetables are sometimes irradiated to kill micro-organisms and reduce the number of microbes present due to unsanitary practices. No thorough testing has been done to know if irradiated food is safe for human consumption.

PASTURE-RAISED: “Pasture-raised” indicates that the animal was raised on a pasture and that it ate grasses and food found in a pasture, 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. This term is very similar to “grass-fed,” though the term “pasture-raised” indicates more clearly that the animal was raised outdoors on pasture.

ORGANIC: All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines (verified by a USDA-approved 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 percent of its 
ingredients are organic. Products with 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients can still 
advertise “organic” ingredients on the front of the package, and products with less than 70 
percent organic ingredients can identify them on the side panel. Organic foods prohibit the 
use of hydrogenation and trans fats.

RBGH-FREE OR RBST-FREE RBGH: Recombinant bovine growth hormone is a genetically 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. Milk labeled “rBGH-free” is produced by dairy cows that never received injections of this hormone. Organic milk is rBGH free. (rBST stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin.)

WILD CAUGHT/WILD FISH: The “wild fish” label indicates that the fish was spawned in the wild, lived in the wild and was caught in the wild. “Wild-caught fish” may have been spawned or lived some part of their lives in a fish farm before being returned to the wild and eventually caught. For sustainable fish, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of the most sustainable seafood choices, or look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label.

Know your farmer know your food! I can't stress the importance of shopping local farmers markets and getting to know your local farmer! Knowing your farmer is the key to knowing exactly how your food is produced. With face-to-face contact, you can get your questions answered and know exactly what you're buying. 




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