The most confusing issue when it comes to nutrition are certainly food labels. Words like “free-range,” “grass-fed,”, “natural,” or “organic” are everywhere these days and irritate more people than clarify. Many food labels can be confusing, so knowing what they mean is a important, to educate yourself about where your food comes from, how it has been produced and if it contains any by products or processes that you don’t wish for you and your family.

The variety food labels and mixed meanings are overwhelming and keeps many from what they really want and need. I have created a list with short explanations that can be used as a shopping guide. I hope you will enjoy it will improve your in your shopping experience!




There are currently no standards for this label and it is not regulated whatsoever, except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines for meat and poultry are that  “natural”  can only undergo minimal processing without the use artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, “natural” foods are not necessarily sustainable. Be aware that they are not organic or humanely raised, nor free hormones and . However, when you anything else then meat and poultry, the label “Natural” does not mean anything and oten is misused.


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


Some food undergoes radiation to kill disease-causing bacteria and reduce the incidence food borne illness and this label means that the food has not been exposed to radiation. No thorough testing has been at the current time  to understand the irradiation process and the impact for human consumption.


Farmers and workers have received a fair pay and worked in acceptable conditions while growing, handling and packaging the product.


The product can not contain gluten, a sticky protein in certain wheat types that can cause problems in some people.


All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines verified by a USDA-approved independent agency. The following guidelines apply for organic food:

  • Abstain from the application prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for three years prior to certification and then
  • continually throughout the organic license.
  • Prohibit the use 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 and hormone use in animals.
  • Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.
  • Avoid contamination during the processing organic products.
  • Keep records all operations
  • No hydrogenation and trans fats.

The “USDA Organic” seal means that 95 to 100% its ingredients are organic. Products with 70 to 95% organic ingredients can still advertise  with the words“organic ingredients” on the front the package, and products with less than 70% organic ingredients can identify them through words on the side panel. Organic foods prohibit the use of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms).


Many commercially-sold milk and fruit juices are fortified with vitamins A and D or others, in an effort to ensure adequate intake these nutrients in the general population. Now we see milk that is also fortified with Omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Animal products – Meat, Dairy & Eggs:


The animal was never given during its lifetime. Other phrases having the same meaning are “no administered” or “raised without .”


The birds were raised without cages. It does not clarify outdoors/indoors raising conditions or on pasture, or indoors in overcrowded conditions. Best option when ing eggs, poultry, or meat is with label “pastured” or “pasture-raised.” That means the animals were roaming free outdoors during their lifetime.


There are two terms, “free-range” or “free-roaming”, defined by the USDA for egg and poultry production. It means producers allow the birds access to the outdoors to engage in natural behaviors, but not necessarily the majority their time. It does not mean cruelty-free or -free. Claims are not verified by third-party inspectors.


GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. Products can only be labeled “GMO-free” if they are produced without being genetically engineered.


The animals were raised on grains. Check the label for a “100% vegetarian diet” claim to ensure the animals were given feed containing no animal by-products.


Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), is a genetically engineered growth hormone that is injected into dairy cows to artificially  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 this hormone. Organic dairy products are rBGH free.


Important –  there was a change for the Grass-fed label issued in January 12, 2016:

Before January 12, 2016: Animals were fed grass, their natural diet, rather than grains, which is not only more humane, side effects   but also grass-fed meat is more lean and lower in fat than grain-fed meat. Grass-fed animals are never fed any grain, animal by-products, synthetic hormones, or to promote growth or prevent disease. However, they may have been given to treat disease when sick. Be aware that “grass-fed” 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. You can additionally look for “grass-fed and grass-finished.”

After Januray 12, 2016: A decision this week by the U.S. Department Agriculture (USDA) is about to make meat labeling more confusing for farmers and consumers. On Tuesday, January 12, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) rescinded the labeling standard of grass fed meat, which was developed over the course four years and finalized in 2006 with the support national farm and consumer organizations, including NSAC. Read the full article here


A rare and endangered breed livestock or crops, usually traditional livestock raised before industrial agriculture drastically reduced breed variety. Prized for their rich taste, these animals 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 production saves animals from extinction and preserves genetic diversity.


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 you can’t find a clear label, inquire with your farmer, butcher or store manager if their meet is free from hormones.


“Pasture-raised” 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.


Produce stickers have the following meaning:

4 DIGIT CODE  starting with 3 or 4 = CONVENTIONALLY GROWN

5 DIGIT CODE starting with 9  =  ORGANIC


yvonne-rightYvonne Wilhelmi is a Health Coach trained in bio-individual nutrition and health strategies and Life Coaching practices. She blogs frequently about health & wellness topics.

Please call me with any questions you might have 770.778.3535. I would love to hear from you! 


Yvonne Wilhelmi
Health Coach