USDA Food Labels: What They Really Mean

By Alyssa Kessel, RDN, LD, Expert Dietitian

Have you ever wondered what grass-fed, free-range, and organic really mean? As previously discussed in my blog on nutrient content claims, the labels on your favorite foods can be misleading, especially when you’re trying to make healthier choices.

I’m going to continue that conversation and walk you through some commonly found USDA food labels. My hope is that by the end you’ll have a better understanding of what these claims actually mean. In addition, feel more confident at your next trip to the grocery store.

What is regulated by the USDA?

The USDA develops labeling guidelines and inspections for meats and poultry products. They also regulate the National Organic program which manages the production and labeling for organic foods.

The USDA defines “organic” as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products from animals that have been given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods are produced without using conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients. A government approved certifier must inspect the farm to ensure these standards are met.

Organic Claims

100% Organic

  • Products that contain 100% organic ingredients (excluding water and salt). Most raw, unprocessed farm products can be designated 100% organic.
  • Example: 100% organic oatmeal

Organic

  • Any product that contains a minimum of 95 % organic ingredients. Up to 5 % of the ingredients may be nonorganic ingredients and processing aids from a limited list approved by USDA. (such as vitamins, baking soda, gelatin, or pectin).
  • Example: Organic cereal

Made with Organic…

  • A product that contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients. Up to 30% can be non-organic agricultural ingredients from a list of specific additives approved by the USDA.
  • Example: Cereal made w/ organic oats

Credit: USDA Economic Research Service

Natural

The USDA allows the use of the term “natural” to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients or added color. USDA food labels listed as “natural” must also be only minimally processed.  

Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that doesn’t fundamentally alter the product. USDA food labels with “natural” must include a statement explaining the term natural, such as “no artificial ingredients.”

Grass-Fed

Your meats such as beef, bison, lamb or goats will have this label. Animals that are considered “grass-fed” eat a diet of natural grass and other forage (instead of grain, soy, or corn). However, this does not specify anything about the living conditions for those animals.

Free-Range

A claim that is used only for poultry. For instance, chickens labeled “free-range” must have access to the outdoors. This, however, does not necessarily mean they are running free all day and night. In addition, there is no specification about the environment in which they live, along with no mention of what they are being fed (similar to gras

Cage-Free

This is used to state that the hens are not confined to cages. “Cage-free” is commonly found on your egg cartons. However, this does not specify if the hens have access to the outdoors. It just tells us they are not in cages.

“No Antibiotics”

This is used on meat or poultry labels if sufficient documentation is provided by the manufacturer to the USDA. Those documents must demonstrate that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

“No Hormones”

It is a federal requirement that hormones not be used in poultry or pork. So you should not be seeing this as a claim on those labels. If you are, certain regulations were not followed properly.

When it comes to beef or lamb, they can have added hormones. The term “no hormones” may be approved for the label of  beef and lamb products if documentation is provided to the USDA showing no added hormones have been used in raising the animals.

Pay Attention to Those Labels

I hope that I’ve helped you to better understand more of those claims on your food labels. In conclusion, be sure to read your nutrition facts and ingredients. In addition, do not buy products based solely on an advertisement on the front of the package!

To dive a little deeper and learn more, check out my previous blogs “The 8 Big Things You Should Read on Every Food Label” and “Food Label 101: What are Nutrient Claims?”.

As well, here are some additional resources to help you make informed decisions at the grocery store:

If you have any questions about these food claims or want to look at the labels of your favorite foods together, please call us at 513-791-9474 or fill out our consultation packet to get started.

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