How To Better Understand Food Labeling

Food labeling laws are adapting to our modern sustainability movements. Food service operators and consumers are requesting more transparency when it comes to how their food is grown or raised. In response, the FDA, USDA and non-profits have developed product labels identifying the new standards.

But, in this ever changing labeling environment-what does it all mean? To combat the confusion, here are several labeling definitions to help you make better purchasing decisions.


How To Better Understand Food Labeling

The Non-GMO movement is relatively new. Highlighting items made, grown, or produced without the use of genetically modified organisms. But what does ‘genetically modified organism’ even mean? The NON-GMO Project defines a GMO as a plant, animal, microorganism, or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Many of the top consumer products-canola, corn, cotton, sugar beet, animal feed and soy- are GMOs.

Why is this a bad thing? There is a two-fold issue surrounding GMO’s.

First, the farmers. GMOs are company owned, controlled, distributed and patented. This gives legal power to these companies and the ability to sue farmers who’s fields have been contaminated with GMOs-through natural pollination or accidental means. Second, environmental impacts. More than 80% of GMO crops are resistant to pesticide. This crops can withstand the toxic chemicals used to treat the fields for weeds and pests. This perpetuates the use of chemicals and their negative effects on the surrounding environment.

The Non-GMO labels identify products that are low risk for GMOs. For more information visit the NON-GMO project.


How To Better Understand Food Labeling

Animal welfare activists have been persistent when it comes to the treatment of egg laying hens. Traditionally, farmers placed hens in cramped stacked cages (battery cages) where conveyor belts transport the eggs to the production facility. These cages only allow for each hen to have about 67 square inches of space to live out their lives. These inhumane cramped spaces lead to injury and disease.

Cage-free hens are free to roam around a barn, build nests, scratch and peck. These conditions, while still cramped, provide a much better living situation for the chickens than cages.


How To Better Understand Food Labeling

Free-range hens take the cage-free treatment to another level. Farms with this distinction allow their chickens to roam freely between the barn and pasture. Giving them access to much more space and fresh air. This is the most humane designation when it comes to egg labeling.

Gestation crate free

How To Better Understand Food Labeling

Gestation crates hold pregnant sows on pig farms. These narrow 2 feet wide cages keep the animals confined and unable to turn around for the entire duration of their pregnancy-often their lives. Once the sows have their piglets they move to a farrowing crate, a slightly larger holding cage, until they ween the piglets. Then the sows then return to the gestation crates and the cycle continues.

Gestation crate free pork refers to farms that do not use gestation crates. The pigs have much more space to move around and live much happier lives.


How To Better Understand Food Labeling

The USDA determines what is “Certified Organic” and what is not. In order to be eligible, farms must not use chemical fertilizers, synthetic additives like pesticides, dyes and must not process food using industrial solvents, irradiation or genetic engineering.

Here are a few different labels you’ll see:

  • 100% Organic-product must contain only organically produced material
  • Certified Organic– must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients
  • Made with Organic Ingredients– must contain 70% organic ingredients (this designation uses certifying agents outside of the USDA)

Pasture Raised

How To Better Understand Food Labeling

“Pasture raised” refers to cattle (dairy and beef) and chickens raised outside of the traditional factory farms, literally. Factory farms confine animals inside pens or cages before processing them for food. Pasture raised animals receive a significant portion of their nutrition from organically managed pasture and stored dried forages, according to the USDA. They do periodically receive supplemented grains during the grazing season and winter.


How To Better Understand Food Labeling

Grass-fed typically refers to cattle (dairy and beef) allowed to forage and graze for their own fresh food. The cows might eat alfalfa or alternative grasses during the off-peak winter months but the emphasis is on making sure the cattle consume as much of a natural diet as possible.


How To Better Understand Food Labeling

There are several sustainable organizations dedicated to the preservation of our waters and the marine life within. Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and The Safina Center, to list a few. These organizations rank sustainable fisheries and seafood on a red, yellow and green scale. Red refers to seafood or fisheries that are in danger or do not use sustainable fishing practices. Yellow indicates ‘ok’ seafood and fisheries but should be used with caution and/or not regularly. Green refers to the most sustainable fishing practices and species that are not in danger.

Use caution when determining seafood purchases. “Wild caught” means that the fisherman caught the fish in open water. It does not mean they used fishing methods that are ecologically friendly.

Here is a link to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch that can give you a state by state guide to sustainable seafood available.


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Patterson Watkins

Professional Chef/Recipe Development/Nutrition Expert/Food Photography

Patterson Watkins is a freelance recipe developer and industry consultant. She has dedicated over 15 years to food service management, encompassing restaurants and corporate dining. Patterson’s work has been featured in Taste of Home, Better Homes and Gardens, American Lifestyle and Urban Outfitters. For more information about Patterson and her work please visit

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