Sticking to natural, unprocessed foods will always give you an edge when it comes to deciphering food labels. For those times when you can’t avoid it, here’s a breakdown of what all those catch words really mean.
Not all foods that are certified “organic” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are 100% organic. Under USDA standards, if the label says:
Foods contain nothing but organically produced ingredients (not including water and salt).
Foods can carry the USDA seal but can contain up to 5% non-organically produced ingredients.
Made with Organic Ingredients
Foods must have at least 70% organic content and the nutritional information panel must specify which ingredients are organic.
It is supposed to mean that a food includes no synthetic substances or added colors or flavors; however there is no formal FDA regulation on this label.
Foods cannot contain preservatives or have been frozen or cooked.
Behind the Meat, Eggs & Dairy Labels
When purchasing meat, eggs and dairy, food labels explain more than the food’s nutritional value. These labels also explain the animal’s welfare.
Animals can roam freely in their natural environment and eat grasses that are part of their natural diet. There is no regulation or certification for this label.
Animals are fed a diet solely comprised of grass and forage, with the exception of milk before they are weaned. They have access to outdoors and are able to engage in natural behaviors, for example grazing. There is no third-party auditing required when using this label.
Free-Range/Roaming (Similar to Cage-Free)
Though there are no standards in “free-range” egg production, typically free-range hens are uncaged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements as to the duration or quality of the outdoor access. There is no third-party auditing required when using this label.
These animals must be kept in conditions that allow for exercise and freedom of movement. Crates, cages and tethers are prohibited. Outdoor access is not required for pigs and poultry, but it is required for all other species. All animals must be provided with bedding and pain relief must be used for any physical alterations. Compliance audits are performed by the labeling program a part of Humane Farm Animal Care.
No Added Hormones
This phrase is used solely for marketing purposes, given it is illegal to use hormones in raising poultry or pork.
Product lookup codes (PLUs) can help you identify how your produce was grown.
If the PLU starts with a 9, and consists of five numbers, it is organic and ideal for purchase.
If the PLU starts with a 4, and consists of four numbers, it is conventionally grown.
If the PLU starts with an 8, it may be genetically modified. Because GMO labeling isn’t required in the US, suppliers may forgo the label altogether.