What Do Food Labels Mean?

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Food Labels

Being an environmentally conscious grocery shopper can be a daunting task. There are hundreds of different labels and no clear information on what the terms actually mean. It is also difficult to know which claims are legitimate and which are just marketing terms with no regulations. In fact, many eco-friendly food claims are not certified by federal government agencies. 


The term organic not only refers to the food itself, but also to how the food was produced. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. USDA organic.png

The USDA oversees organic certification. Before any product can be labeled "organic," a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to ensure that all USDA organic standards are met. Any companies that handle or process organic food before it arrives at the grocery store or restaurant must also be certified. 

There are multiple labeling categories for organic products:

  • 100 Percent Organic: All ingredients must be certified organic and any processing aids must also be organic.
  • Organic: Products in this category must contain at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients. Up to five percent of the content, excluding salt and water, may be non-organic.
  • Made with Organic: At least 70 percent of the product must consist of certified organic ingredients. While the remaining agricultural products are not required to be organically produced, they must be produced without excluded methods, like genetic engineering. Items in this category may state "made with organic (insert up to three ingredients)," but will not include the USDA organic seal.
  • Specific Organic Ingredients: Multi-ingredient products containing less than 70 percent certified organic content will not include the USDA organic seal or the word "organic" on the principal display panel. Specific organic items will be listed on the ingredient panel. 

Natural or All Natural

The term "natural" applies broadly to food products that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives; growth hormones; antibiotics; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers. 

natural label.fw_.pngThe USDA also oversees any meat, poultry, and egg products that are labeled as "natural." In order to use this label, products must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. In contrast to organic standards, the natural label only refers to the processing and does not include any regulations regarding farming practices. 

Currently, there are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs. The United States Food & Drug Administration has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the FDA has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. The food label should explain the use of the term "natural." For example, it should indicate that the product contains no artificial ingredients. 

Grass Fed and Pasture Raised

As of January 2016, the USDA withdrew the grass fed marketing claim standard. The grass fed standard required that the animals be fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The label did not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. The USDA does not have a labeling policy for pasture raised food products. 

Free Range and Cage Free

The labels "free range" and "cage free" refer to the environment in which the laying hens were housed in. 

  • Free Range: Use of the free range label indicates that the eggs are produced by hens that are housed in an area that allows them continuous outdoor access during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.
  • Cage Free: Cage free eggs must be produced by hens that are given the freedom to roam within their living area during the laying cycle. Essentially, these hens do not live in cages, but there are no specific stipulations about the size of the living space. 


gotexan logo_0.jpgThe GO TEXAN certification mark identifies products that are produced in Texas. Buying locally grown food products is helpful for the Texas environment because it reduces emissions from refrigeration and transportation and cuts back on packing materials. 



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