Organic, Natural, Free-Range… What does it all mean?

Organic Hormone Free All Natural Free Range Crate Free What do all ...

We see these things on labels in the grocery store. We read these terms in all the blogs that claim we should be eating a certain way… But what do these labels really mean? I admit that just one year ago, I didn’t know. I thought I knew, but I didn’t really know what exactly these terms meant for me as the consumer. I think that it’s important to know, so I am going to tell you.

First, let’s talk chicken. We hear all the time about “free-range chicken.” What do you think of when you hear (or read) “free-range” or “free roaming” chicken? Before I actually knew what this term mean, I assumed that the chickens were free to roam around as they pleased, making them healthier, which in turn would make their meat better. For a chicken product to be labeled “free-range” or “free roaming,” the producer must prove to the USDA that the hens had some access to outside. That’s it. That could mean for an hour a day, it could mean that the chickens are in an outdoor cage.

Then there is “Natural.” This just means that no artificial ingredient or coloring has been used and the chicken product is minimally processed.

You might also see a label on your chicken product that says “No Hormones.” That’s great, but hormones are not used in any poultry production. It’s not allowed. So, putting this on the label is simply a marketing scheme to get you to choose one brand over another, and possibly pay more for it.

I am not blasting chicken farms. I am simply letting you know that these labels do not guarantee a better product. They are often for marketing purposes.

Now for pork. Sometimes you might see “crate free.” This means that the sow was not confined to a gestation crate when she had the babies. It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual consumer product, but may drive the price up some.

What about beef an dairy? I have seen and heard a lot of misinformation regarding the beef and dairy industries. I have written a blog debunking the dairy myths. What about the completely confusing labeling?

“Grass fed” means that the animal got 80% of it’s energy from grass or forage during its lifetime. It doesn’t mean that the animal was never fed grain. “Free range” beef means the animal was given unconfined access to pasture. The label “all natural” means pretty much nothing when it comes to beef and dairy. There are no regulations for using this on the label.

The mother of all food labeling has got to be ORGANIC. If buying organic produce is important to you, be sure to look for the USDA Organic Seal, as this is the proof that the product comes from a farm that has actually been through the process of becoming certified and is being regulated by the National Organic Program. The NOP checks for pesticide residue, use of genetically modified organisms, and makes sure animals are being treated properly to be called organic.

USDA's National Organic Program logo

This seal means that the producer has been through all of the process to be certified organic by the USDA and that 95% of the ingredients in the product are organic. Please note that organic farmers do use pesticides. The amounts, types, and processes vary and are different from large-production farms BUT there may be pesticides used. If this is something that you are willing to pay up to twice as much money for, that’s your call. Just know that “organic” does not mean 100% pesticide free. You can find more on the USDA Organic Certification at their website.

My suggestion is to buy as close to home as you can, when possible. That way you can have an actual conversation with the farmer about the product. I also strongly advise reading the labels with the knowledge of what the labels actually mean. Many of these logos and seals are simply there for marketing. Like the hormone-free label on chicken and poultry, where hormones are not being used by anyone in the US.

I am not saying that you should or should not buy organic. I am not saying that GMO’s are bad or good or indifferent. I am saying it’s a confusing, tangled web of labels in my grocery store and I think it’s good to be informed!

Thank you to Sarah Weeks, who taught me about food labels at an in-service training I went to about a year and a half ago. She is great!


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