What's In A Name? What Do Food Labels Mean?

appleMany health conscious consumers read labels to help guide their purchases.

Unfortunately, packaging labels and many of their listed ingredients can be deceptive and misleading.

It’s time to get to know what the labels really mean so we can invest our money in the best quality foods.


According to the USDA, “100% Organic” means the final product is free from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, antibiotics, and hormones. This is important — especially if you want food that’s free from synthetic chemicals and other carcinogenic crap!  Going organic is a smart choice.  But… there’s a little snafu in the government’s “organic” labeling process, and it affects small local farmers and subsequently you, the consumer.

“Producers who market less than $5000 worth of organic products are not required to become certified but must still adhere to the federal standards for organic production, product labeling and handling, including keeping appropriate records, and [they] cannot use the USDA seal.”[1]

That basically means small local farmers, even though they may be growing things organically, cannot legally use the “USDA Certified Organic” label. Why is it that anytime the government gets involved, the little guys get screwed?

Let’s start a food revolution and purchase most, if not all, of our products from small local farmers. To join this culinary crusade, all you need to do is purchase food from your local farmers market. That’s it.  There is no need to storm the streets protesting loudly with bullhorns or dump tea into the harbor.  Purchase from the little guys (and gals) who need our financial support to keep producing great quality food without having to pay HUGE fees for a label they cannot afford. Remember to ask the farmer how the produce or livestock is raised — even though it may not be labeled as such, it may still be organic and/or naturally grown.

There is a grass-roots movement happening across America that both supports the local farmers who can’t get USDA certified and ensures that products are grown with the highest principles and ideals.  This organization holds to standards for organic that go above and beyond those of the USDA. Look for the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) label or check out their website for more information.[2]  Also, check out Northeast Organic Farming Association.


The “natural” label has been horribly abused and can be used on practically any product to market anything. “Natural” products can contain chemicals, pesticides, synthetic hormones, genetically modified organisms… you name it.  Essentially, “Natural” products may not be natural at all.


Eggs and poultry can be labeled “free-range” or “free-roaming” if the animals have access to the outdoors.  This does not mean they actually make it to the outside world. “Access to the outdoors” could mean there is a small window or entryway the size of Alice in Wonderland’s tiny little door, but that the animals never go through it to experience a life filled with barnyard adventures. Can you imagine what it would feel like to live inside without access to the outdoors your entire life? There is no doubt that your bones would be frail from lack of vitamin D, sunshine, exercise, and your immune system would be terribly weak. The same thing happens to animals that are not allowed outside to roam freely. It’s important to make sure your poultry really is “free-range” or “free roaming.” The best and surest way to discover this information is to actually visit a local farm and see how the farmer is raising the animals.  If visiting a farm is not an option, then you have to let go and trust that the integrity of the product is true.


“Pastured” means the animals have been raised on a pasture (outdoors) where they are free to roam and eat seeds, grass, bugs, worms, and all other delicious things they are designed to eat. These animals have access to fresh air, sunshine, exercise and many other aspects of nature.  Pastured animals live a better quality life and can therefore supply us with more healthful and tastier meats and dairy products.


I understand this may seem like an odd concept, but “grass-fed” literally means the animal has been fed grass, which for them is an ideal diet.  Cows and other ruminants are physically designed to digest grass – ingesting anything else (for example corn and soy) makes them sick.  This is one of the many reasons our livestock are fed a steady diet of antibiotics – to help keep them alive.  “Grass-fed” is on the top of my list when searching for meat products.  However, a “grass-fed” label doesn’t mean the animal was fed grass its entire life. Some grass-fed cattle are “grain-finished.”  That means they were fed grains to fatten them up prior to slaughter. Some people prefer grain-finished animals because they are fattier. I prefer grass-fed animals. They are leaner and tend to be healthier overall. The healthier the animal is, the healthier you will be when you eat it.

There are so many labels on food products in the market — healthful, heritage, fair trade, fresh, good source, fat-free, calorie-free, GMO- free — that it can make your head spin! Be wary of food labels and read ingredients carefully.

The best way to know what is in your food is to either grow it yourself (even I’m not that idealistic!) or get to know your local farmers and ask them how they are growing their products.

Excerpted from Health is Wealth – Make a Delicious Investment In You!


[1] http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/master-gardener/volunteers/teaching-tools/docs/mn_guide_to_organic_certification_updated_032011.pdf

[2] http://www.naturallygrown.org/