What That Label [Really] Means

Practice better shopping habits by knowing what you are buying – you have to understand what grocery-store buzzwords really mean (and what they don’t mean).

Here are some of the most common terms

Organicusda organic

Used for produce that is free of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), grown without pesticides or synthetic herbicides, and not irradiated; for dairy, beef, and poultry, it means animals were given organic feed. “Certified Organic” means production methods were verified by an independent inspector. There are three USDA-approved labels for packaged foods: “100 percent organic” products must include all organic ingredients, “organic” at least 95 percent, and “made with organic ingredients” at least 70 percent.

all natural label

Refers to products made without artificial flavors or colors or synthetic substances, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows processed sweeteners (corn syrup, fructose, juice concentrates), “natural” flavors and colors (derived from natural sources but produced in a lab), and additives and preservatives.


Indicates that an anima was raised with access to the outdoors. This claim is only regulated by the U.S. Department Free range labelof Agriculture (USDA) for poultry chickens, not for egg-laying chickens or meat. Only five minutes of open-air access per day is enough to qualify. Cage-Free refers to eggs from hens that aren’t confined to cages, whether or not they actually make it out to fresh air.

Hormone-Freehormone free

Means that no hormones were used during the production of the product. No organization verifies these claims beyond what is already required by the USDA, which prohibits the use of hormones on pork and poultry but allows certain ones for cows.

Raised Without Antibioticsno antibiotics

Indicates that no antibiotics were used in the production of a meat or dairy product. The USDA doesn’t use the term “antibiotic-free” because it considers it unprovable.

Certified Humanecertified humane

Used for meat, dairy, and eggs to indicate that the animals were raised in humane conditions, with sufficient space and freedom to move, and were not subjected to artificial means to induce growth, such as for chickens.

Sugar-Free or “No added sugar”

A product that makes this claim cannot contain added sugars. It can still have artificial chemical sweeteners, however, such as aspartame, Splenda, or saccharin, or sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, xylitol, or maltitol, which can affect the digestive system adversely if consumed in large quantities.


So-called superfoods, such as goji and acai berries, have been getting a lot of press, but don’t believe the hype. There’s no legal definition of “superfood” so it’s a term that’s open to abuse. Strictly speaking, all fruit and vegetables are superfoods, because they all provide important vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that help keep us healthy. And although some, such as blueberries and broccoli, have such large amounts of these health-promoting substances – variety is the key.

nutrition facts

Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) www.fda.gov, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) www.usda.gov, Environmental Working Group www.ewg.org, A Clean Slate from the editors of Martha Stewart Living, A Clean Fit, Liar Labels.