The Health Journals

Understanding Food Labels

Green Tips | January 21, 2018

Organizing a sustainable, ethical world often requires leadership from the top, but consumers can make choices themselves about the kinds of food-production practices they do or do not want to support, influencing policy from the bottom. Environmental consumers sometimes simply look for products to be qualified as either environmentally friendly or not, but this is an oversimplification, since products don’t just either support or damage the environment as a holistic structure. Looking for specific qualifications is the best way for consumers to use their own sense of activism to reward the production practices they feel are healthiest for themselves and the world. Below are a few explanations of common environmental labels in the food industry, and what practices those labels support or condemn.


In Meat, Eggs, Milk and Cheese: Legally, organic animal products come from animals that have only ever eaten organic food themselves. Organic livestock have never received growth hormones or antibiotics, and farmers are not allowed to use irradiation or genetic engineering to improve meat production. For USDA-certified organic, third party partners act as certifiers. Organic status has nothing to do with the animals’ lifestyles, though: their spatial arrangements, time spent in pastures, and reproduction conditions vary widely among organic animals at different farms. Acquiring certification as “organic” is one of the most rigorously enforced accolades for food products to acquire.  In other words, it is difficult to falsely advertise food products as “organic,” so organic food labels are almost always honest.

In Fruits and Veggies:  Organic status for plant products indicates that the following are not present, or were never used during production: pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sludge, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and growth modifiers. It is more accurate to think of organic plant products as missing negative compounds, rather than including extra, positive ones. While some studies have indicated that organic plants are more nutritious than conventionally grown plants, many other studies have found similar nutrient levels between conventional and organic fruits and vegetables. Buying organic food is a consumer’s way to ensure they are not ingesting these undesirable chemicals from pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.

Free Range: The legal definition of “free range” stipulates only that animals involved in husbandry have access to open spaces. Free range cattle exist outside any kind of enclosure with hard boundaries like fencing or walls, so they are not crammed into small buildings 24/7.

Free range poultry can technically live inside enclosures with fencing, but to be considered free range, the enclosures have to be so large that their borders do not affect the birds’ lifestyle (even though there may technically be fencing, the space feels unrestrictive from the birds’ points of view).  Free range status does not indicate anything about the chemical composition of products derived from those animals, or what those animals are consuming themselves. Supporting free range husbandry as a consumer is a way to fight against cruel treatment that typically occurs in cramped enclosures. There is still diversity between free range farms as to how easily animals can access their open spaces, so the current state of the term only means that animals have theoretical access to open spaces.

Cage Free:  Cage free poultry are raised with similar goals to free range poultry, but have a marginally smaller degree of difference from traditional industrial husbandry. Cage free birds simply don’t live in cages, yet do not have guaranteed access to open spaces. Supporting cage free poultry practices ensures that birds are not forced to live in floor-less battery cages too small to permit spreading their wings, perching, or nesting. Cage free poultry still often live in cramped conditions, but their ranges of motion are still greater than those raised in industrial houses.

Grass Fed: The name is not misleading: grass-fed meat products come from animals that have grazed on grass in pastures their entire lives. Grass-fed animals that end up being made into meat products cannot have been fed grain or grain byproducts, ever. Many consumers view grain-fed animals as symptomatic of the United States’ over-subsidization of corn farming in the Midwest, which often ends up as a secondary feed source for cattle. Grass-fed certification helps ensure that meat products come from a more natural, realistic food chain.

Fair Trade Certification: Fair trade products ensure that the humans involved in producing the food products were paid a fair wage in safe working conditions. Having nothing to do with animal welfare or food chemistry, fair trade certification is a qualifier some consumers value as insurance that workers, including the possibility of children, were not exploited while producing the food in question. Third parties inspect food production operations before granting the fair trade label.

Natural: As per the FDA in 1993, natural means: “nothing artificial or synthetic . . . has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.” The FDA has ruled on a case-by-case basis in the now-stockpiling class action lawsuits against food manufacturers delayed by judges until the FDA makes a definitive ruling on the matter. The term “natural” implies similar standards to “organic,” but with far fewer stipulations. The consequence: “Natural” foods labels in the US has grown into a $40 billion industry. In the absence of regulation, the proliferation of products with the “natural label” is a cause for concern for the discerning shopper. Customers will no doubt see more “natural” than “organic” products in supermarkets, but must be wary about what this means. At the current time, it means nothing specific.

Non-GMO and Genetically Modified Organisms: There is much public controversy surrounding GMO’s. Currently, there is no scientific consensus that food derived from GMO’s is dangerous or less healthy than non-GMO-derived food. However, there is public concern surrounding genetic modification, as many consumers view it as a source of strengthening bacterial and pest resistance and shrinking the resiliency of crucial food crops by reducing genetic diversity. Non-GMO foods come from either plants or animals that have never been genetically modified, or whose ancestors were never genetically modified.

By: Ryan Cuddy
Edits and updates by: Willy Kane

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