Deciphering 5 Common Food Labels

Do you often walk into the grocery store determined to make better choices on the food you bring home from your family? You’re willing to spend a little more for safer food choices, but then you encounter so many different labels.

What do all those labels mean?!!

Often the grocery store labels that greet us on products can be misleading and confusing. Last week we talked about ways to detox our kitchen so that we can ensure that our cooking utensils and containers don’t leech toxins into our food. But what about your food itself? You might be buying products that you think are safe, when in reality they are not.

I hope to help you understand the common labels you encounter and how to shop smarter and wiser, so you can improve the health of yourself and your family.

1. Natural

If you’re like 60% of Americans, you aim to find foods in the grocery store that sport the “natural” label. But did you know the FDA has never defined the term natural? Instead, the FDA has stated that it considers “the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”

But this is not a defined standard, so the FDA can choose to enforce it however it decides. The policy for “natural” labeled products also doesn’t take into consideration GMOs, the use of pesticides, whether animals were treated humanely, or the addition of hormones or antibiotics.

So when you see “natural” or “all natural” on a label, be sure to check out the ingredients, especially on processed food. You’re most likely getting a host of unnatural products. For the most part, the natural label means absolutely nothing!

2. Organic

There are three different organic labels you will see on your food:

  1. USDA Organic: 95% of the product must be organic

  2. 100% Organic: 100% of the product is organic

  3. Made with Organic Ingredients: 70% of the product must be organic

But “organic” does not mean that the food or product was made or produced without added pesticides, synthetic ingredients, or chemicals. Nope!

Pesticides are allowed in the production of organic foods!

There is a list of “approved” pesticides that organic farmers and producers may use in growing their crops. And many of these approved pesticides are carcinogens. This translates to many more potentially harmful ingredients in your food than that organic label led you to believe.

Organic also does not mean that the animals were raised humanely, sustainably, or regeneratively.

Let’s look at eggs for example. When it comes to eggs, many manufacturers raise thousands (sometimes millions) of birds confined in barns with no real access to the outdoors. Often there are 3 birds for each square foot, with barely enough room to move around. This is despite the fact that organic eggs must meet the “free range” label requirements.

A massive “USDA Organic” egg producer grows over 1.6 million hens inside these barns with 3 chickens per square foot.

A massive “USDA Organic” egg producer grows over 1.6 million hens inside these barns with 3 chickens per square foot.

These “organic” producers can do this because they’ve provided a “porch” access for the birds. There is a small door leading to a concrete slab with a porch roof available. Since the birds don’t generally venture far from water or feed, they will likely never step foot in this so called outdoor area. And even if they did, they would have no access to real ground, real grass, or sunshine.

The effect of these limits on the nutrient value of the eggs produced is significant. Pastured eggs, meaning eggs produced from hens that spend their lives on pasture, eating grass and soaking up the sunshine, have vastly higher nutrient values than organic eggs. Here’s a breakdown of the increased nutrient values:

  • Twice as much Vitamin E

  • 30% Vitamin A concentration

  • Twice as much long-chain Omega-3 fats

  • 2.5 times more total Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Less than half the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3.

Bottom line is that pastured eggs are WAY better for your health than organic—all because the chicken is allowed to “express its chickenness,” to quote regenerative farming pioneer, Joel Salatin.

One thing the organic label DOES get right—genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not considered organic. So while the issues detailed above still exist, it does at least get you a little bit closer to cleaner, safer food for you and your family.

3. Non-GMO Project Certified

This doesn’t mean the food is 100% GMO free; to meet the Non-GMO Project standards, the food must be contaminated with no more than 0.9% of GMOs. But it’s close. Let’s talk about what genetically modified organisms actually are. A GMO is an organism with traits created with modern biotechnology (so in a lab).

What it doesn’t mean is mutation breeding—such as crop modification techniques that mess with an organism’s genetic makeup. Breeders can use radiation or chemicals to force or induce genetic mutations in the plant or organism. Once the breeder gets a desirable trait from these methods, the resulting plants are commercialized and sold. And they could easily be stamped with the Non-GMO Project Certified label since this method is not considered GMO.

Additionally, just because a product doesn’t contain GMOs has nothing to do with whether that product wa grown with pesticides, herbicides, or various chemicals.

But when seeking to avoid GMOs, the Non-GMO Project Certified is one way to steer mostly clear of GMOs. However, the fact that this label exists on a LOT of different products can be meaningless. Many products do not contain ingredients that would have GMOs. The only GMOs currently approved in the US are soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, canola, papaya, and summer squash. So unless the product contains these ingredients, the manufacturer is just using the Non GMO Project Certified label as a marketing hack.

You may wonder why you should even be concerned with GMOs. Some studies have linked GMOs to increased allergies, organ toxicity, hormonal disruption, and other health problems.

4. Grass-Fed

This means essentially nothing. In 2007, the FDA ruled that as long as the animal had consumed grass at some point in its lifetime, it could be labeled grass-fed. Even 100% confined animals fed hay can fall into this category. But labeling something “grass-fed” does not mean the animal was 100% grass fed and 100% grass finished.

This label also doesn’t have anything to do with whether that animal was injected with hormones or antibiotics. So if you’re concerned about these things, there is one third-party label that gets you there: “American Grass-Fed.”

If you see an “American Grass-Fed” label, it means:

  • The animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100% forage

  • The animals were raised on pasture, not in confinement

  • The animals were never treated with hormones or antibiotics

  • The animals were born and raised in the U.S.A.

Like the chicken example above, cows that have been raised on pasture, grass, sunshine, and not treated with hormones or antibiotics can make a huge difference in your health. Pastured beef has:

  • Fewer calories

  • Higher ratio of healthy fats

  • 2-3 times more conjugated linoleic acid (which helps fight cancer and decreases the risk of heart disease)

But it’s important to understand than many small farm operations may not spend the time or money to get these expensive certifications to save their customers money. So if you source your meat locally, the easiest way to ensure you are getting pastured meat is to speak to the farmer about his practices.

5. Fair Trade

There are several international organizations that verify certain products are manufactured or grown in proper working conditions, appropriate terms of trade, and seek to ensure the product was produced in a sustainable manner. But in order to get this label, the products only need to contain 20 percent or more ingredients that are considered fair trade.

So when you pick up a product with this label that has a slew of ingredients, its a fair bet than many of those ingredients were not fair trade.


Navigating the confusing labels in the grocery store can be harrowing, but hopefully you now have a better grasp of these labels and how to shop smart. The best way to ensure you are getting quality food is to shop local where you can talk to the farmer or rancher (or even better, visit the farm) to verify that the practices are sustainable and regenerative.

The health benefits gained from eating fruits and veggies free from pesticides and herbicides as well as sourcing meats from pastured animals can be huge. Not to mention to effect on the environment and regenerating the soil. So take a stroll through your farmer’s market this weekend and ask some questions. It is extremely rewarding to build relationships with the people who personally grow your food to nourish your body and family.

-Rachel

When was the last time you sourced your meat or produce from a local farm? Which of the above labels did you find most surprising?