What’s in a label? Decoding food claims, from natural to non-GMO


When you see “natural” on anything other than meat or poultry, be wary, as the USDA’s regulations here are fairly lenient. According to the FDA, the term “natural” applies broadly to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and other artificial additives; grow hormones; antibiotics; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers. However, most foods labeled natural are not subject to government controls beyond the regulations and heath codes that apply to all foods.

Meat and poultry are the exception. Here, the seal means the protein contains no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, or ingredients, and was minimally processed. (Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.)

“Natural” does not indicate the absence of GMOs.

Grass Fed


This label applies to cows or lambs that are raised on a diet consisting of nothing but grasses, hay, and forage. Be wary of this label unless it also says “USDA Process Verified,” a program that reviews a producer’s plan and guarantees that the animals are fed only grass and forage, and have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

Cage Free

Cage Free Accredited

This fairly telegraphic term is not highly regulated by the USDA and more or less just means the chickens don’t live in cages. (Duh.) Where they do live, usually, is in an aviary, which is basically an industrial barn where a bird has an average of one square foot of space. They generally do not have access to the outdoors. There are no regulations regarding what the birds can be fed. There is also no third-party auditing.

Free Range

The only USDA requirement for poultry to achieve this label is that producers must “demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Typically, free-range birds live inside aviaries. There are no regulations on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There are also no regulations regarding what the birds can be fed, and there’s no third-party auditing.

When you see “free range” on other types of meat, be wary, as it’s not regulated or certified.

Certified Humane Raised & Handled

Certified Humane

This is a reliable label. It is managed by the Humane Farm Animal Care, an independent non-profit organization. It certifies eggs, dairy, meat, and poultry, and requires that animals are allowed to engage in their natural behaviors; have sufficient space, shelter, and gentle handling to limit stress; and have access to ample fresh water and a healthy diet without added antibiotics or hormones. Inspections are carried out annually.

Food Alliance Certified

food alliance certified_large

This is a reliable label. Food Alliance certifies farmers, ranchers, food processors, packers, and distributors for sustainable agriculture practices and social responsibility. The logo ensures that employees have safe and fair working conditions, animals are treated humanely, and there is no use of hormones, non-therapeutic antibiotics, or GMOs. Food processors must use ingredients certified by Food Alliance, conserve water and energy, and reduce waste.

No Chemicals Added

This is not a reliable label, as it is not backed by any vetted certification system. It is also often misleading due to such loopholes as the fact that antibiotics are not technically considered chemicals, and therefore meat with this label could come from animals that have been given antibiotics.

Rainforest Alliance Certified


This reliable label is backed by an independent certifier that guarantees that crops have been grown sustainably and workers are treated justly. Products are certified based on the Sustainable Agriculture Standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network. Farms are audited annually and surprise audits are carried out for certified farms at least once a year.

Marine Stewardship Council


This is a reliable label for seafood that guarantees the product comes from fisheries that have been assessed by an independent certifier and found to meet the Marine Stewardship Council environmental standard for sustainable fishing. The certifier checks the condition of fish stocks, the impact of the fishery on the marine environment, and the fishery management systems, among other things.

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