Friday Flashback to Food Labels

With nutrition labels making headlines every other day, we can all use a refresher on what all those common food labels actually mean. So let’s revisit one of our first Chewing Noises posts that breaks down the definitions behind everything from organic to whole grain.


Food shopping has never been so complicated. You walk into the store knowing you need bananas, yogurt and eggs. Simple, right? Sure, if these weren’t some of the labels weren’t mocking you: organic, conventional, dairy-free, soy-free, cage-free, free-range, non-GMO and the list goes on. You get the point.

So, we stepped in. Here’s a handy little guide on the most common food labels so you can understand what you’re buying. While no label necessarily signifies it’s nutritious, you should at least have the info to make the call yourself.

USDA Certified Organic

Well, it depends. The label signifies the foods been grown and processed in compliance to federal guidelines on soil quality, animal raising practices, additives, and more. What factors exactly depends on the type of food but here are some basics:

– Produce can be labeled organic if it was grown on soil without a prohibited substance (e.g. synthetic fertilizer) for three years prior to harvest.

– For meat, animals must be raised in “natural” living conditions, fed 100% organic feed, and not given any antibiotics or hormones.

And to complicate things further, processed organic foods have other considerations – like the use of artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors. But there are exceptions here, like pectin in fruit jams. So, read the ingredient list closely.

Food Alliance Certified

When you spot this sticker, you’re seeing food that’s been sustainably produced according to the Food Alliance’s certification measures. A lot of these match up to the USDA’s organic certification except they require farmers to reduce – not remove – use of pesticides and other hazardous materials. So, this one’s good for you if you’re more concerned about safe working conditions, no artificial ingredients, and animal treatment. Just less strict on the pesticide side.


Nada. As the FDA says, “A food product has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” Right, so basically there aren’t any FDA guidelines on slapping “all natural” on a label so chomp at your own risk. But, they’re accepting comments so if you have ideas, share away.

Non-GMO Project Verified

Believe it or not, this doesn’t mean the product is 100% GMO-free because the contamination risk is too high for anyone to make that claim. But the label does mean it meets the Non-GMO Project’s standards. To summarize 37 pages in a sentence: they require ongoing testing of high-risk ingredients with an Action Threshold of 0.9% (the European norm) so any product containing more than 0.9% GMO must be labeled.

Fair Trade

Google “fair trade” and you’ll probably read the definition: “Goods that are traded fairly.” Thanks. It doesn’t help that there’s a number of fair trade labeling organizations, but most do share some common principles. The label typically signifies that this organization sources ingredients from farmers and workers who are rightly compensated, often in developing countries.

Cage Free

You’re might’ve heard about the push for food companies to go cage-free and wonder what that even means. If the eggs are labeled cage-free, the chickens hatching those eggs are not living in cages, getting their beaks cut, or starved for forced molting. They’re free to walk, nest and partake in other natural behavior but they don’t necessarily have outdoor access.

Free Range

If the thought of chickens living inside makes you cringe, go for free-range. These chickens get to do everything above but they also have outdoor access. Cage-free and free-range don’t say anything about what the chickens are fed, though, unless the birds are certified organic. In that case, their feed is organic, vegetarian, and free from pesticides and antibiotics.

American Grass-Fed

Animal lovers (who eat meat), this is your label. An American Grass-Fed label tells you the producer’s animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100% forage, raised on a pasture, and never treated with hormones or antibiotics.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

This guy tells you the product comes from, or has ingredients sourced from, a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm or forest. To get that certification, the farm or forest has to meet certain environmental, social and economic standards that aim to conserve wildlife and waterways, protect workers and their communities, and promote sustainability.

Whole Grain

You might think you’re eating whole grains when you reach for the multigrain or wheat bread but sadly that’s not the case. The Whole Grain Council offered a fix to this problem – two stamps that mark the product contains all parts of the grain, so you’re getting the nutrition benefits of whole grains. They have two versions – the 100% stamp means all its grain ingredients are whole gains and the Basic stamp requires the product to contain at least 8g of whole grains but allows it to also contain some refined grains.

There you have it – some of the most common food labels and what they really mean, even when it’s not always what you’d think. Happy shopping.

Illustration: Matt Brown