Understanding Food Labels

food labels Feb 12, 2020

Reading labels now has become somewhat confusing. From the food you buy at the grocery store to the food you eat at the restaurant, trying to figure out what differences between terms like "free-range", "grass-fed", and "organic" can be a little challenging. I myself struggle with many of these terms mostly because I eat a plant-based whole food diet and don't have to deal with them on a daily basis.

Here is a list of some of the common ones you will see! If you see something new, make sure you do a little research to figure out what it's all about! I hope this helps you with your trip to the grocery store!



"Antibiotic-free" means an animal wasn't given antibiotics during its lifetime. Other phrases that indicate the same thing include "no antibiotics administered", and "raised without antibiotics".



"Cage-Free " means the birds were raised out of cages. What this doesn't tell you is whether the birds were raised outdoors on pasture or indoors in over-crowded conditions. If you eat eggs, poultry, or meat, look for "pastured" or "pasture-raised".



The "Fairtrade" label means farmers and workers, often in developing countries, have received fair wages and work in acceptable conditions.



"Free-range" and "Free Roaming" on egg and poultry labels are only defined by the USDA. These labels can be used as long as the producers allow the birds some access to the outdoors. It doesn't necessarily mean the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic fee, or that the animals spent the majority of their time outdoors. Claims are defined by the USDA but aren't verified by third-party inspectors. So as you can clearly see this title doesn't mean much!



GMOs, genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. Sounds scrumptious! Products can be labeled "GMO-FREE" if they are produced without GMOs.



Animals raised on a grain diet are labeled "grain-fed". Check the label for "100% vegetarian diet" claim to ensure the animals were given feed containing no animal by-products.



This means the animals were fed grass, their natural diet, rather than grains. In addition to being more humane, grass-fed meat is leaner and lower in fat and calories than grain-fed meat. Grass-fed animals are not fed grain, animal by-products, synthetic hormones, or antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease-although may be given antibiotics to treat disease. A "grass-fed" label 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. Look for "grass-fed and grass-finished"


Foods labeled "healthy" must be low in saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Certain foods must also contain at least 10% of the following nutrients: Vitamin A or C, Iron, Calcium, Protein, and Fiber.


The USDA has prohibited use of the term "hormone-free" but animals raised without added growth hormones can be labeled "no hormones administered" or "no added hormones". By law, hogs and poultry can not be given any hormones. If the meats you are buying are not clearly labeled, there is a good chance they have hormones.


Currently, no standards exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines state that "natural" meat and poultry products can only undergo minimal processing and can't contain artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, "natural" foods aren't necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics.


This label means the food has not been exposed to radiation. Meat and vegetables are sometimes irradiated to kill disease-causing bacteria. No testing has been done to see if irradiated food is safe for human consumption.



"Pasture-raised" indicated the animal was raised on a pasture where it was able to eat nutritious grass and other plants, rather than being fattened on grain, in a feedlot, or in a barn.



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

Abstain from the application of prohibited materials(including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) Thank god!

Prohibit the use of GMOs and irradiation.

Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation practices.

Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.

Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.

Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.

Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.

Keep a record of all operations.

If a product contains the "USDA Organic" seal, it means that 95-100% of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70-95% organic ingredients can still advertise "organic ingredients" on the package, and the products with less than 70% organic ingredients can identify them on the side panel. Organic foods prohibit the use of hydrogenation and trans fats.


Recombinant bovine growth hormone, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, is a genetically engineered growth hormone that's injected into dairy cows to artificially increase their milk production. I'm sorry but it doesn't get much scarier than that! The hormone has not been properly tested for safety, and it's use isn't permitted in the European Union, Canada, and some other countries, hmmmmm, why is this acceptable in the United States???. Milk labeled "RBGH-free" is produced by dairy cows that never received injections of this hormone. Organic milk is RBGH-free. Or remove dairy from your diet!

I wanted to write this because I do get a lot of questions about labels and I encourage my clients to constantly read labels and question ingredients they can't pronounce. After going through some of these terms I realize what a blessing it is to follow a plant-based whole-food diet. Wow! that makes reading labels a whole lot easier, a lot less work, and is a healthier way to live!

If you are interested in an easy transition over to a plant-based diet sign up for the free 30 Day Plant-Based Challenge right here!


Xo, T

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