What Food Product Labels Really Mean

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What Food Product Labels Really Mean
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What Food Product Labels Really Mean

Click through the slideshow to see food labels decoded.

1. Organic
According to the USDA, "Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.


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2. Biodynamic
Is biodynamic the new organic? It's not a term that has started popping up in grocery stores yet, but it may not be long before that happens. What often starts out as a "specialty" movement or product in farmers markets usually trickles down to brick-and-mortar stores — think of rocket, grass-fed beef, and pastured eggs. Such may be the case with biodynamically grown food.

Credit: Jane Bruce

3. Cage-Free/Free-Range
The USDA officially defines "cage-free" in the following manner: "This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle." Their definition of "free-range" is similar but includes a stipulation that they have "continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle."

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4. Pasture-Raised
The USDA doesn’t have an official definition for "pasture-raised" yet, but we spoke to a farmer at the Union Square Greenmarket who sells eggs from pastured hens. Jon, of Millport Dairy located in Lancaster, Pa., says that his laying hens have access to the outdoors year-round, as long as weather permits.

Credit: Jane Bruce

5. Not Treated with rbST
Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), also known as rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) doesn’t sound like something that would become a household name, but it has. And it is synonymous with "no thanks." It’s a synthetic version of a hormone that’s already produced by cows, known also as Posilac.

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6. "Natural"
The USDA actually has an official definition for "natural," but it only applies to meat, poultry, and egg products. It states that any such products "must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or added color." Minimally processed? What does that mean? That’s pretty vague and doesn’t really tell consumers a whole lot.

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7. Antibiotic-Free
It's understandable that many consumers these days are concerned with antibiotics making their way into animal feed, and eventually, through the consumption of meat from such animals, into our bodies. Jonathan Safran Foer states that 3 million pounds of antibiotics are already administered to Americans each year.

Credit: Jane Bruce

8. MSC Certified
MSC stands for "Marine Stewardship Council," an organization created by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever to oversee the wild fish stocks around the world. In theory, fish that are MSC Certified come from fisheries that meet the organization's environmental and legal standards and are traceable from boat to fork.

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9. Kosher
According to the USDA, when it comes to meat and poultry products, the word "kosher" can solely be displayed on products "prepared under rabbinical supervision."

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10. Grass-Fed
The USDA's official definition of grass-fed states, "Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life." That's a lot like their "USDA Organic" label, which basically says that 95 percent of the way is good enough. Furthermore, the USDA definition states that "the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides."

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11. Wagyu
Wagyu is a term more likely to be encountered in restaurants than in grocery stores, but the term is so confusing, we thought we'd include it on this list just to clear things up. Wagyu beef is desirable for its unique marbling, flavor, and texture, and as a result, it carries a hefty premium.

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12. Fair Trade Certified
Consumers will find this label on a variety of products, not just coffee. It is found on tea, cocoa, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, sugar, honey, wine, and grains, as well as non-foodstuffs such as flowers and rubber products. Despite the (somewhat) tacky informational video on their site, the organization that issues the certification, Transfair USA, does seem to be on the level.

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13. Pesticide-Free
The use of this term isn't regulated, and it's most often seen at farmers markets. Pesticide-free could mean just that — pesticides were not used in the production of a crop. But, the most important thing to take away is that it's not necessarily synonymous with "organic."

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14. DO/AOC/DOC/PDO
If you’ve ever seen products like "Parmesan Reggiano" at Trader Joe’s, that’s probably thanks to the protective power of one of these designations. They’re typically found on European artisanal products and are basically a way of signifying an authentic product from a specific region or terroir, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, or champagne.

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15. Farm-Raised
This is a term that applies to fish; it’s common to also see the term "aquaculture" these days. Farm-raised fish are commonly raised either in closed systems inland, or in open-net pens in the ocean. Farm-raised fish are subject to a number of problems, starting with their habitat. Those that are farmed in open-net pens often release tons of waste directly into the ocean.

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16. Non-GMO
GMO stands for "genetically modified organism." For those concerned with the presence of genetically modified ingredients, components, or seed in their fruits, vegetables, and other food products, the current situation is a bit of a mess, but there are attempts to clean it up.

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17. Vine-Ripened
The term refers to tomatoes; vine-ripened tomatoes sound like they've been left on the vine until red ripe, but what it actually means in practice is that they were left on the vine just a bit longer than "non-vine-ripened" tomatoes, just long enough for the first sign of red to appear on a mostly still green tomato.

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18. Hothouse-Grown
A hothouse is essentially a heated greenhouse used to grow plants out of season. Common examples of hothouse-grown vegetables and fruits include rhubarb, tomatoes, and peppers. Results vary by crop — for tomatoes, it's pretty hard to beat the flavor and texture of a field-grown tomato picked at the height of ripeness from a farmers market.

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19. Sustainable
Here’s a term that’s used often by marketers and seldom defined. In the context of food production though, the simplest definition probably goes something like this: Food that has been produced or harvested in a "sustainable" manner minimizes environmental impact and takes into account resource and population management for the sake of future generations.

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20. Heritage Breed
For consumers who already possess this knowledge but aren't ready to give up meat, a few producers have stepped in claiming the use of "heritage breeds" Pollo Buono, for example, in the case of chicken, D'Artagnan in the case of turkeys, and Flying Pigs Farm in the case of pork.

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21. Artisanal
This isn't a legally regulated term either, and so it gets used a lot because it sounds good — when people think of artisanal, they're probably thinking of a passionate baker, slaving away over some hot hearth in the wee hours of the morning, making the same, perfect baguette that he does every morning.

Credit: Jane Bruce

22. Halal
Halal means "permitted" or "lawful" in Arabic. With respect to food, anything that is permitted under dietary guidelines outlined in the Quran is considered "halal." Here in the U.S., it is most commonly used to refer to meat. Halal meat must come from animals that are slaughtered in a humane manner.

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23. Pareve
Pareve, also sometimes spelled "parve" or "parev," appears on kosher products and means that the product is "neutral" in the sense that it does not contain meat or dairy products, and can be served with either meat or dairy. This is useful for those who observe the restriction against consuming meat and dairy together.

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24. Meat Grading
For poultry, you should only see Grade A meat in stores. Grade A simply means that "poultry products are virtually free from bruises, discolorations, and feathers. Bone-in products have no broken bones. For whole birds and parts with the skin on, there are no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking."

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25. Probiotic
Probiotics seem to be all the rage these days. Just walk down the dairy aisle in the supermarket and there are bound to be dozens of brands of yogurt all advertising the use of probiotics and perhaps some purported health benefits. Some claim improved immunity, while others claim better digestion.

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26. Certified Angus
Certified Angus Beef is a registered trademark and brand of beef that comes from Angus cattle. In order to be certified, the beef must fall in one of the USDA's top two grading tiers: USDA Choice or USDA Prime. There are other criteria considered, such as carcass weight, fat thickness, the size of the rib-eye, and some cosmetic considerations.

Credit: Jane Bruce

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With the proliferation of many convenience foods and ingredients purporting to be "healthy" or perhaps just as importantly, "green" in one way or another, shopping for groceries can be a daunting task. There's even an entire supermarket chain, Whole Foods, that happens to be wildly successful (it last reported net income in excess of $117 million, up nearly 31 percent over the prior year), dedicated to the concept of shopping by buzzword.

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There was once a time when the only thing that really mattered when it came to eating food was a vague concept known as "wholesomeness." Difficult to define yet seemingly desirable, wholesomeness was perhaps more easily defined by examples of what was not wholesome rather than what actually was. Anything that wasn't made from scratch was probably not "wholesome," anything that didn't stick to your ribs was not "wholesome," and anything that had ingredients that you couldn't identify as food was probably not what Nonna or your cultural equivalent considered "wholesome."

Not anymore. These days, many more buzzwords are creeping into our language, and they can make grocery shopping a real chore. To cite an example of just how confusing the experience can be, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, offers this little vignette about his milk shopping experience at Whole Foods: "Some of the organic milk in the milk case was 'ultrapasteurized,' an extra processing step that was presented as a boon to the consumer, since it extends shelf life. But then another, more local dairy boasted about the fact they had said no to ultrapasteurization, implying that their product was fresher, less processed, and therefore more organic." Organic, ultrapasteurized, local, more organic — it's enough to make anyone just grab a random jug out of confusion and frustration.

Yet, in a way, perhaps one could argue that in the end, it all boils down to "wholesomeness," whatever it is — many people seem to have an interest in food that is not just "wholesome" for themselves, but for the animals and society as a... whole — in terms of its production, sustainability (another loaded term), and its overall impact on the environment and the people who produce it. Chipotle's carnitas burrito, for example, wasn't really a hot seller until its founder, Steve Ells, made the switch to antibiotic-free pork. The switch was inspired by an article called "The Lost Taste of Pork," written by Edward Behr, about a Niman Ranch pork chop Behr had first tasted at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse. After the switch, Chipotle customers started purchasing more carnitas, despite an initial 22 percent premium.

But when you pay a premium for foodstuffs bearing (or boasting, depending on your personal proclivities toward these newfound terms) such labels as "MSC certified," "Fair Trade," or "Biodynamic," are you really getting what you pay for? What do these terms really mean? Sure, they might make you feel good, but do they really do any good? Especially with the current state of economic affairs, even the most die-hard of "green" shoppers probably wonder if these terms are "worth it" and actually mean anything. After all, what good is paying double for organic chicken if it's still the same breed of chicken as "regular" chicken?

Oftentimes, the best thing to do, when possible, is to cut through all the marketing and just take a few minutes and talk to the people who make your food — this, of course, is probably only possible at farmers markets, assuming they are populated by "real" farmers (that is a whole separate article in itself), and only for certain food products — namely produce, and perhaps dairy, meat, and seafood. For instance, there are many farmers who choose not to become certified organic because of the sheer cost, but may conform to the required practices anyway (or perhaps, exceed them). But, we also recognize that not everyone has the time, or the desire, to talk directly with food producers, and that's where product labeling is supposed to step in and do everyone a service.

So we've assembled a list of terms that you're likely to encounter when shopping for food. While we recognize it is possible to practically write a book on quite a few of these terms (and many have been written), we've tried to limit ourselves to their official definitions and the main issues to keep in mind when encountering one of these terms on product packaging, so that you can make a better informed decision when shopping for food. Check out the slideshow above!


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