Many labels can be confusing, so knowing what a food claim means is a great way to educate yourself about where your food comes from and how it has been produced.

Antibiotic-Free    this means that the animal was not given antibiotics during its lifetime. Other phrases that indicate the same approach include “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics”.

Cage-Free   this means the birds were raised without cages. It however doesn’t explain whether the birds were raised outdoors in overcrowded conditions.

Fair Trade  this label means that the farmers and workers, often in developing countries, have received a fair wage and worked in acceptable conditions while growing and packaging the product.

Free-Range          this label can be used as long as the producers allow the birds’ access to the outdoors, so that they can engage in natural behaviors. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic-free or that the animals spend majority of their time outdoors. Terms “free-range” or “free-roaming” are only defined by the USDA for egg and poultry, but not verified by third-party inspectors.

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 can be labeled “GMO-Free” if they are produced without being genetically engineered through the use of GMOs.

Grain-Fed  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.

Grass-Fed   this means the animals were fed grass, their natural diet, 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.”

Healthy      this label means the product contains low saturated fat and limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Certain foods must also contain at least 10% of the following nutrients: vitamin A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.

Heritage     tis 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.

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.

Natural      This label means minimal processing and cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. This label; however, doesn’t mean that foods are sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics.

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

Pasture-Raised     this 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. Furthermore, eating pastured food offers many benefits including a high-quality protein, iron, zinc, selenium, b-complex, phosphorous, vitamin E, and magnesium , lower in fat and calories and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and CLA than grain-fed meat. The effects that pastured meat can have in your body are higher energy levels, increased focus, better sleep, improved digestion, increased metabolism, decreased stress, increased circulation, possible weight loss, improved, hair, skin, and nails and reduced anxiety.

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% 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.

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 its use 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.

*Information adapted from