How To Read Organic Food Labels

How To Read Organic Food Labels


Organic.  With Organic Ingredients. Natural. Grass-fed. Grass-finished. Non-GMO.  The labels can be confusing and overwhelming.  I have spent 10 minutes or more staring at multiple egg options in the grocery aisle only to walk away with a dozen different questions running through my mind rather than the dozen eggs I was initially after.

First of all, what does organic mean?

According, to the United States Department of Agriculture, certified organic means the following: “Organic food is produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. Not permitted are most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.”

Now that we know what organic means, let’s continue on to the labeling.  Let me help you decipher the organic code.

Certified Organic: 95% or more of the ingredients in a product are deemed organic by the USDA.  It will carry a nifty little label like the one you viewed at the top of the page.

Made with Organic Ingredients: 75% or more of the ingredients in a product are deemed organic by the USDA.

Non-GMO: All certified organic food is considered Non-GMO; however, it is not true for the contrary.  Non-GMO simply means you are getting a product that has not been genetically modified in a lab.  It does NOT mean it is free of antiobiotics, pesticides, or sewage sludge.

Natural: It doesn’t mean a whole lot.  Just good advertising!  Typically, a natural label means the food product may not contain any artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.  It is not a promise.  Gasoline is natural but it is still gasoline.  Don’t spend extra money on foods labeled as “natural.”

100% Grass-fed/Grass-finished: Cows natural diet is grass.  They weren’t designed to eat grain.  So a grass-fed cow is usually a healthier cow, which means healthier meat and dairy for you.  For example, when cows eat grass their milk flows with omega-3 fats, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). Conjugated what? CLA is a fatty acid needed for improved immune function, blood sugar regulation and reduced body fat among other benefits.  You don’t get these benefits from feedlot cows.

Pasture-raised: It is a tricky way for products to sound like they are grass-fed.  Yes, cows may spend some time on the pasture but it can eat from a bucket of grain on that rolling hill of lush green.  So don’t buy into the pasture-raised label for extra moola.

You won’t see grass-fed as a label for pigs and chickens because these particular animals do need some grain in their diet if they are not fed their natural diet.

If you were to stumble upon a chicken in a wild field you would find them pecking away at plants, bugs and worms.

At the store, you will find so many variances of eggs your head will spin.  Everything from pasture-raised, cage-free, organic, soy-free, free-range and farm fresh.

Soy-free eggs: Eggs are fed a diet of grain that is free of soy products.  Good for people who are sensitive to soy.

Farm fresh:  Doesn’t have to be from anything other than a factory farm.  And…they aren’t exactly fresh!  We didn’t pull them from the chicken coop this morning, did we?  This label is just a label.  Ignore it!

Free-range:  Chickens may have access to the outdoors but I use the term, “outdoors,” lightly.  For many chickens this means a small space made available close to the barn where they are still given conventional feed.

Organic:  The chickens are not eating their natural diet of bugs, worms and plants but they are not consuming any animal by-products, and their grain feed is classified as organic.

Pasture-raised: Chickens spend some time outdoors and are fed a diet that more closely resembles what they would eat in nature.  They may be supplemented with grain and it doesn’t have to be organic grain if it isn’t labeled as such.

Cage-free:  Simply means the chicken is not continually housed in a cage but it does not mean the chicken has access to the outdoors.

Do you find all these labels ridiculous? I know I do.  It is frustrating as a consumer to have to filter through all the food jargon.  I just want to be able to feed my family the healthiest diet I can and I find it unreal the amount of time you have to dedicate towards being a food detective this day and age.  Until the USA comes up with a more uniformed system, I developed my own for my family.

  • If I buy less boxed food then I have to worry less about labels and ingredients.  I take control.
  • When the season is right, I like to support my local farmers by purchasing food at the farmer’s market.  I can pay a fair price and feel good about my purchase.  If I have questions about the process, I can ask the farmer! Win-win!
  • I buy organic whenever possible.
  • When I purchase dairy and meat I always look for 100% grass-fed and organic.  It may not always be available, in which case, I look for 100% grass-fed from a local farmer.  Pesticides and chemicals are stored in the body fat of animals.  Keep that in mind while shopping.
  • I always try to buy what is on sale to keep my grocery budget on the thrifty side.
  • Eat more vegetarian meals and support your wallet, your body and the environment!
  • I cook as much as I can at home.  Whole ingredients are safer ingredients.  Don’t let the labeling system stress you out.  Stress isn’t any better for your body than a non-organic, caged egg! Right? Right!