Organic, Non-GMO, Cage-Free: How to Make Sense of Our Food Labels

photo via Foodiesfeed

Today, certified nutritionist Ashlee Rowland will share some insight on how to interpret food labels like GMOs, gluten-free, cage-free and other health buzz words. Ashlee and I actually connected after she read a blog post I wrote on LinkedIn and we immediately hit it off. Ashlee also runs Simplholistic, a site dedicated to nutritious recipes,  health-conscious products/restaurants and travel fueled by clean eats.

Ashlee’s post perfectly aligns with our upcoming book club for In Defense of Food (join here!) as both she and Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food) do a great job on clearing up ambiguity on the latest health fads!

I’ll let Ashlee take it from here :D.

Large corporations are capitalizing on the fact that people are becoming more health-conscious. Terms like “all natural”, “eco-friendly”, “derived from nature” and “healthy” are popping up everywhere and it’s becoming more difficult to make sense of our food labels. But no need to fret: after this post, you will walk around the grocery store (or online stores) with confidence in your healthy purchases!

What do these terms mean?

All natural: What do the US Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission have in common? Oh yeah, neither of them have an actual definition for the term “all natural”. From the FDA, “has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” (1) What does this mean? It means that “natural” foods can still contain processed sweeteners, lab-made flavors and preservatives/additives. We don’t need a label to tell us something is natural, just read the ingredients.

Made with organic: This one is a little tricky. These products will say “made with organic sugar” or “made with organic dairy” and this means that only the sugar or dairy must be organic but rest of the ingredients can be (and most likely are) conventional. You will notice the USDA organic seal won’t be on these products so just be mindful. Here are some examples of this misleading label:

Cage-free: Unless an egg carton is “certified organic”, we do not really know what the terms are for cage-free chickens. Cage-free means chickens can engage in some natural behavior but they are not necessarily given outdoor access or prevented from starvation based molting. Pastured eggs are the way to go — buy from a local farmer if possible.

GMO-free:. GMOs are a result of a laboratory process where the genes from one organism are extracted and forcefully injected into the genes of an unrelated organism. The top 5 GMO crops are soy, corn, canola, cotton and sugar beets.  Be careful though, a non-GMO product, it does not automatically mean that is it organic.

Organic: Organic is changing a lot but what it still means is that products with this label must be free of GMOs, hormones, ionizing radiation, antibiotics and sewage sludge (ew). They are also ensuring that there is a reduction in conventional farm off-put like synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. Organic farming is also dedication to soil diversity, crop rotation and the quality of the earth. When something says organic, it is also saying that it is GMO-free. There are a few different categories for organic:

  • 100% organic = made with 100% organic ingredients
  • organic = made with 95% organic ingredients
  • Made with organic = at least 70% organic & the remaining 30% cannot contain GMOs
  • individually labeled organic ingredients such as organic wheat, organic cheese, etc.

Pastured vs. grass-fed: These two words are starting to be used interchangeably and I want to clear up that murky water for you. Pastured means that the animals go out in the pasture and eat whatever they come across: grass, weeds, flowers, bark etc.  Grass-fed means that the animal ate grass. Grass-fed technically doesn’t mean the animals are outside,but usually we can assume that is the case.  Pastured may mean that they were fed grain. The best solution is to buy local and so you know exactly where these cows and eat lives. If you are buying grassfed cows, look for 100% grass-fed.

If the costs are ever higher for organic then for conventional you must think of the factors behind it. These factors include:

  • organic farmers are refused governmental subsidies so we pay the true cost for food
  • the price of conventional food does not include the tax $$ we pay for environmental cleanup
  • organic farming is more labor and management intensive
  • organic farms are usually smaller meaning they don’t benefit from the economies of scale

Even if something is a few cents more expensive, you really must make the choice. A few cents (or even dollars) more now or thousands in medical bills down the road.

Phew, it’s over. You are ready to hit the store running. If you want more posts on topics like this and clean recipes be sure to follow me on Instagram and subscribe to the blog.


Author: Akansha