Articles > What's In a Name?

The Labels Explained
1 Sep 2014


            One finds them all over today’s food products, both fresh and prepared, on boxes and cartons, fruits and vegetables. No, not insect infestations. Food labels –– those bar codes, numbers, descriptive words and acronyms with clever little images. Natural. Organic. Cage-free. Non-GMO verified. Wild-caught. And the list goes on. But where did they originate, and are they really necessary?

            Prior to the establishment of the first self-service grocery store in 1916 –– a Piggly Wiggly® in Memphis, Tenn., founded by Clarence Saunders –– consumers attended markets, picked their food at the farm or out of the back yard or gave a list to a grocery clerk who would collect and pack up the provisions for customers. The increased efficiency of allowing consumers to “hunt and gather” their food from shelves and refrigerated cases, combined with a world made smaller through improved transportation methods, increased variety in food offerings and the growing interest in eating more healthfully gave rise to the use of food labels, benefiting producers, distributors and consumers alike. And though occasionally irritating (some sticky glue on tagged produce appears to be stickier than others), or even misleading in certain applications, food labels can provide quite useful information to consumers concerned with the source of their food –– and what is in it.



            According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP), whose mission is to ensure “the integrity of USDA organic products in the U.S. and throughout the world,” the term organic “indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” The following guidelines were established since October 21, 2002.


For single-ingredient foods, the word “organic” and the seal may appear on the packaging of cheese, eggs, meat, milk, etc., and as a sticker on fruits and vegetables or on produce signage. Multi-ingredient foods, including beverages, snacks and processed foods, use a more detailed classification system:


  • 100% Organic – Made with 100% organic ingredients, excluding salt and water, and may display the USDA Organic seal
  • Organic – Contain by weight at least 95-99% organic ingredients, with remaining ingredients unavailable organically but approved by the NOP; may display the USDA Organic seal
  • Made With Organic Ingredients – Must contain 70-94% organic ingredients; may list up to three ingredients on the package front; no USDA Organic seal
  • Other– Containing less than 70% organic ingredients; may only list organic ingredients on the package information panel; no USDA Organic seal


            As use of the USDA Organic label is voluntary, not all producers certified organic choose to use it. Likewise, some producers maintain organic practices, but opt not to go through the strict certification process.



            Many people –– a third of those surveyed by “Consumer Reports” –– believe the words natural and organic are interchangeable. The term “organic” is strictly regulated as noted above; however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never formally defined the term “natural,” recognized as a buzzword that helps to generate over $22 billion in yearly sales. A product labeled natural may in fact contain non-natural ingredients. To assure that a product’s ingredients are indeed natural, consumers should read the Nutrition Facts label on the package.



            Like natural, “artisan” is another buzzword not formally defined by the FDA, but found on hundreds of products, from pizzas to tortilla chips to doughnuts. It may mentally evoke nostalgic images of handcrafted foods, like cheeses, breads and baked good and confections produced in small batches. Consumers looking for artisanal products might wish to look for the words “handcrafted” and “small batch.”


Multi-grain, Whole Grain and Whole Wheat

            Americans have been encouraged to increase consumption of more whole grains to help prevent heart disease, yet again, the FDA has no legal definition of what a whole grain is. Legally, “only whole wheat bread must be made with 100 percent whole wheat, but any other wheat product can have as much or as little wheat as the manufacturer decides” (“Companies Not Telling the Whole Truth About Whole Grains,” Multigrain simply means the product has more than one grain, which could all be refined flour and not whole grains. If a product is labeled “Whole Grain,” the first and most prevalent item in the ingredient list in the Nutrition Fact list

is ­­–– whole grain.


Non-GMO Verified and GMO-Free

            GMOs or genetically modified organisms, defined in detail by the Non-GMO Project, “are plants or animals created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE),” an experimental technology that “…merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.” GMOs differ from hybrids, which are created by “cross-pollinating two different, but related plants over 6 to 10 plant generations, eventually creating a new plant variety” ( and heirlooms, grown from “seed that has been saved and grown for a period of years and is passed down by the gardener that preserved it…. To be capable of being saved, all heirloom seed must be open pollinated” (

            Much controversy surrounds GMOs and their actual benefits and potential safety, which has led to their outright banning and importation in many countries and and increasing demand for labeling in several states in the U.S. Most of the canola, corn, cotton, soy and sugar beets grown in the U.S. is GMO.

            The retailers who started the Non-GMO Project, North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance, believe “that consumers in North America should have access to clearly-labeled non-GMO food and products.” The Non-GMO Project Verified seal indicates that the product has gone through its verification process. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal is not a “GMO-free” claim. Products bearing the label GMO-free “are not legally or scientifically defensible, and they are not verified by a third party.” Furthermore, the risk of contamination from cross-pollination “to seeds, crops, ingredients and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is ‘GMO-free.’”


Price Look-Up (PLU) Labels

            Yes, they can be annoying, those little sticky number labels on produce. But though originally created to help speed up the checkout process and track inventory in grocery stores, they enhance quality control for producers and distributors and help limit costs tied to tracing tainted products, as well as provide consumers with beneficial information about what they are eating, and where it was grown. These universal codes, created through the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS), apply to fruit, vegetables, herbs and nuts and are most commonly affixed to fruit. One can look up a code online at

  • Four digits – conventionally raised, which may include the use of pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers
  • Five digits, beginning with 8 – grown from GMO seeds
  • Five digits, beginning with 9 – organic, grown in accordance to the National Organic Standards Board

Cage-free, Free-range, Free-roaming and Pasture-raised

            How an animal raised for food is treated during its life has grown in importance to many consumers as a result of information regarding crowded concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that deny animals the opportunities to live outside or engage in their natural behaviors. Laying hens not confined to small cages (battery hens) with floors slightly smaller than a legal-sized sheet of paper will forage, nest, perch, spread their wings and take dust baths. A label on egg cartons including “free” suggests the opportunity to “act like chickens,” but can be misleading. The Humane Society of the United States provides detailed descriptions of these labels with regard to egg production.

  • Cage-Free– Hens live un-caged inside barns, generally with no access to the outdoors.
  • Free-Range– No government-regulated standards required, but hens typically live un-caged inside barns with some access to the outdoors.
  • Free-Roaming– Also known as “free-range
  • Pasture-Raised– No government-regulated standards required, but hens typically live outdoors for most of the year on pasture and kept indoors at night for protection.


Chickens raised for meat are often labeled hormone- or steroid-free, but the use of either is not allowed in chicken production in the United States. Many producers today actively promote chicken as raised without antibiotics or antibiotic-free or without the use of antibiotics. According to the National Chicken Council, antibiotic-free, which is the same as raised without antibiotics, is not allowed on labels, but can be used in marketing materials. However, all chicken is essentially antibiotic-free because of the time required between administration of the drugs and slaughter. Only certified organically raised chickens received a diet that is antibiotic- and/or pesticide-free.


Grass-fed and Pasture-raised

            The USDA’s definition of grass-fed animals, which refers to bison, cattle, goats and sheep, requires that 100% of the diet consist of “freshly grazed pasture during the growing season and stored grasses (hay or grass silage) during the winter months or drought conditions” (“Food Labeling for Dummies,” However, it doesn’t indicate an animal’s access to pasture –– it could be fed harvested forage –– or whether it has received antibiotics or hormones, and yet it could still carry the USDA grass-fed label. Alternatively, the American Grassfed Association’s (AGA) independent third-party certification “verifies a 100 percent forage diet, raised on pasture that has a minimum of 75 percent cover, no confinement, no antibiotics and no added hormones.”

            So a grass-fed animal isn’t necessarily pasture-raised, and pasture-raised doesn’t necessarily mean grass-fed; grass-fed refers to what is eaten, and pasture-raised to where an animal eats. Farmers may feed grain to animals that feed on grass, especially during winter months, and to further confuse the consumer, “a product may say “grass-fed” on the packaging, but the cow might have been “finished” on grain, meaning it ate grain during the last 2 or 3 months of its life.”  Consumers looking for 100% grass-fed beef should look for products labeled as such.

            Lastly, the term grass-fed cannot apply to pigs or chickens, as both require grain as part of the diet, but they may be pasture-raised and labeled accordingly.


Farm-raised and Wild-caught

            Fish and seafood provide high-quality protein, minerals and vitamins and are considered heart-healthy. But concerns about overfishing and mercury levels in the oceans have contributed to the rise of the fastest-growing sector of animal food production, aquaculture or fish farming. Fish are raised in tanks or in netted cages in coastal waters. Responsible fish farming uses water filtration systems and non-polluting natural fish foods.

            Wild-caught fish, which are often more nutritious, are caught where they live naturally, often using methods (like drag nets) that can negatively impact other marine species and ecosystems. Consumers may want to look for the Marine Stewardship Council’s “Fish Forever” label verifying sustainable practices, such as hook-and-line fishing, long-lining and trap fishing.


            While the original intentions of food labels may have been to increase efficiency and accountability for producers and distributers, consumers clearly benefit from knowing more about their food, enabling them to purchase products aligning with their interest in and desire for particular consumption habits. But the list above features just a small sampling of the labels used in product packaging, some of which are defined by government regulation; most, however, are not. Companies simply use them to market products, giving rise to confusion, misunderstanding, misuse and even lawsuits. For more information, The Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) Program’s offers its publication “Food Labeling for Dummies: a definitive guide to common food label terms and claims” at




Welcome to the National Organic Program,


Certified Organic Label Guide,


“In US, ‘Natural’ Food Label Means Nothing,” by Kerry Sheridan, Agence France Presse,


“‘Natural’ vs ‘Organic’: How Food Labels Deceive,”


“4 Buzzwords to Bypass on Your Label Packaging,”


Companies Not Telling the Whole Truth About Whole Grains,”


“Sticky PLU Labels on Fruit Provide Useful Health Information,” by Heidi Stevenson


“What the Sticker on Your Produce Actually Means,”


“How to Read Egg Carton Labels,”


“Food Labeling for Dummies: a definitive guide to common food label terms and claims,”


“Pasture-raised vs. grass-fed: what’s the difference?”


“Fishing and Seafood Farming,”


Karen Gilchrist

Copyright 2016 • Sandhills Naturally • Main Street Media