Non-GMO, Organic, and More: Decoding Food Labels

food labels

Grocery shopping these day can get overwhelming with all of the different food labels. From GMO’s to free-range and grass-fed meat, what labels are worth paying for and which ones are a sham?


food labels

Image via Two Fit Moms

Certified Organic

The USDA defines organic as having 95% or more certified organic ingredients.Produce is organic if it’s grown on soil without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Organic meat prioritizes raising animals in conditions comparable to natural environments. They should be able to graze, eat organic food, forage, and live without antibiotics or hormones.

Foods with several ingredients cannot contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

Made with Organic Ingredients

Products that contain this label consist of at least 70% organic ingredients. The other 30% of ingredients cannot use prohibited practices, such as genetic engineering.


According to the Non-GMO Project, a genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology.

food labels

Image via Kimberton Whole Foods


Whether labeled “natural” or “all-natural,” the meaning is the same. Natural foods do not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and have minimally processed ingredients. They may contain hormones or antibiotics.

Pesticide Free

There is no official definition for this label, but at its simplest it can be interpreted to mean free of pesticide-residue. Although, pesticide use could still occur during the raising process. Unfortunately, even if farmers do not use pesticides in their own crops, pesticides from other fields may travel over.

Fair Trade

This label can be found across product categories. The World Fair Trade Organization cites the label as meaning, “…a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.”


food labels

Image via Paleo Hacks

Pole/Line Caught

This means that the fisherman catch fish individually, rather than with a net. Fishing through this method eliminates the chances of disturbing or catching other marine life, in comparison to net-fishing.

Farm-Raised Fish

Farm-raised fish live in enclosed farming environments located within various bodies of water or large tanks. This method is cheaper than wild caught or pole caught.

The downside to farm-raised fish, however, lies within their diet. Their feed often consists of corn, grains, and ground wild-caught fish. In the case of salmon, the feed also includes dye to give them their pink coloring.

Wild Caught

In comparison, wild caught fish come from their natural environments. Their diet is more diverse, and the fish have no risk of ingesting antibiotics.

For more information on which type of fish is better for you, read here.


food labels

Image via American Grass-fed Association


Grass fed beef means that for a certain period of their life, the animals ate grass. Although, this time period could have only been for the beginning of their life. Often times, in order to fatten the animal, their diet will switch to grain for months prior to their slaughter.


If an animal is fed grass, and only grass, for its entire life then it is grass-finished. This type of beef can contain 20% less calories and hosts higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, and Vitamins A and E.

Certified Humane

Humane Animal Care, has three levels of certification for certified humane: cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised.

  • Cage Free
    • This may sound appealing, and is definitely better than caged, but cage-free farming hosts many issues. The chickens do not have outdoor access and, like most farms, are victim to beak cutting and starvation-based forced molting in order to influence their egg-laying cycle.
  • Free Range
    • The second-best option for livestock is free range. This means the animals have access to the outdoors for at least six hours per day. Additionally, chickens must have at least 2 square feet of outdoor space.
  • Pasture Raised
    • Finally, the optimal method, pasture raised livestock must be on a pasture for at least six hours per day, each chicken must have 108 square feet of pasture, and the pasture must mainly contain living vegetation.

food labels

Image via Humane Society

Animal Welfare Approved

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, this method of raising livestock “ensure that cattle graze on green pastures, sows and hens can build nests before giving birth, and ducks are always able to swim in clean water.”

American Humane Certified

This certification is preferable to none at all, but it isn’t optimal. While definitely limited, the space allotted to livestock exceeds the space normally available. Chickens kept in cages must have 0.8 square feed in each cage.

Their cage-free certification allows for chickens to remain indoors for their entire lives. The free and pasture range label does not specify an amount of time they spend outdoors.

Food Alliance Certified

The Food Alliance certification is available for most food industries. It focuses on fair treatment of all animals and workers involved. Emphasizing conservation of materials and sustainable livestock conditions.

For chickens, the birds are cage free and must each have 1.23 square feet of space. They must have access to daylight or an outdoor area with living vegetation for at least eight hours a day. Nesting, perching, and dust-bathing is required.

United Egg Producers Certified

Unfortunately, this certification permits many inhumane practices. Caged chickens must only have 0.46 square feet. Cage-free chickens remain indoors at all times, only required to have one square foot of floor space.

Hormone Free

Hormones are prohibited in the raising of pork or poultry therefore all products are hormone free.

Hormone-use in beef is allowed and most products without this label use them.

No Antibiotics

In order to control, prevent, and treat disease or to increase growth rates in animals companies use antibiotics. This leads to even more stress put upon an animal in an already horrid environment. Livestock raised without antibiotics bear the label, “no antibiotics.”

Cover image via Swirled

Also published on Medium.