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What do food labels really mean?

Due to growing health and environmental concerns, many people have been asking about the meaning and reliability of food labeling. Although many labels say that foods are natural, organic, etc. some of these labels are not regulated or the regulations are not enforced. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates and defines food labeling as follows:

Natural: Food labeled "natural," according to the USDA definition, does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals.

Regulations are fairly lenient for foods labeled "natural." Producers must submit a sort of application at the time of slaughter, detailing practices used throughout the life of the animal. Labels are evaluated to prevent mislabeling but no inspections are conducted and producers are not required to be certified.

All Natural: The USDA does not define foods labeled "all natural" as any differnt than those labeled "natural." Foods with this labeling are probably not any different than "natural" foods and may not be regulated as they are not defined by the USDA.

Organic: Foods labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and the other 5% must be approved on the National List provided by the USDA. They can not be produced with any anibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Each organic ingredient must be identified along with the name of the certifying agency.

The USDA regulates organic product labels much more thoroughly than thay do other product labels and, hence, foods labeled "organic" are more likely to actually be organic. Producers of organic foods must submit an application for certification. This application must include the type of operation, substance history for the past three years of operation, organic products to be grown, raised, and produced, and their plan for practices and substance use. Furthermore, they must keep records for five years after certification and make all information and records available to the National Organic Program (NOP), the division of the USDA which deals with organic production. Before certification, an on-site inspection is conducted with continuing annual and unannounced inspections after certification. If it is found that a product has been knowingly mislabeled, there is a civil penalty of up to $11,000.

100% Organic: Foods labeled "100% organic" must consist of only orgainic ingredients and processing aids. The same controls and regulations are put in place as those used for foods labeled "organic."

Made with Organic Ingredients: Foods with this labeling must consist of at least 70% organic ingredients and none of the ingredients can be produced with sewage-sludge based products or ionizing radiation. Labeling cannot include the USDA seal or the word "organic" in any principle displays. Three of the organic ingredients can be included on the label and all organic ingredients should be identified in the ingredients list. The same controls and regulations are put in place as those use for foods labeled "organic."

For more information on organic labeling and marketing click here.

Free Range/Cage Free: For a product to be labeled "free range" or "cage free" the animals cannot be contained in any way and must be allowed to roam and forage freely over a large area of open land.

This labeling is very minimally regulated. USDA food labeling regulation only requires that the producer be able to demonstrate that the animals are allowed access to the outside and not contained, but applications and certification are not required. This level of regulation has allowed producers to keep animals closely confined, but without cages, and still use the label "cage free." This issue is discussed in many articles and blogs such as those posted on

Grass Fed: Food labeled "grass fed" usually includes the label "free range" or "cage free," however, they are not necessarily connected. By definition a "grass fed" animal is one that is raised primarily on ranges rather than in a feedlot, which means that they can be contained and still show this label, as long as they are allowed to graze.  According to studies done by Northwestern Health Sciences University, grass fed products are usually preferred because the animals were probably not contained and the products are healthier than grain fed products. If an animal was "grain fed" it was most likely raised in a feedlot, contained for most of its life, and is of less nutritional value.

The USDA defines "grass fed" as it applies to labeling but does not regulate it in any way.

While the USDA does regulate most food labels, they do not regulate all labels and, as with "free range" and "cage free" labels, they do not always do so as thoroughly as possible. Knowing this, along with the meaning of each label, will help consumers make healthier and more environmentally friendly decisions.

For more information visit the USDA website or any other links listed on this page.

The definitions above can be found in the USDA glossary of agricultural terms.

Foods labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and the other 5% must be approved on the National List provided by the USDA.

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