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From "Free Range" to "Grass Fed":
What the Popular Healthy Food Phrases Really Mean

Whether on a package of eggs in your grocery store or listed on a menu in your favorite restaurant, words like "free-range," "grass-fed," "natural," and "organic" are everywhere these days. Most of these labels sound quite good and healthy, but what does it really mean when you order "wild game" or "pasture-raised" chicken?

free range chicken

Poultry labeled "free-range" only has to have been allowed access to the outdoors (but the space it's allowed could be as small as a laptop computer).

It may not be what you think. Many food labels can be deceiving and knowing what a food claim truly means -- and doesn't mean -- is the only way to ensure you're getting exactly what you had in mind. So put down that "natural" candy bar and don't buy another "free-range" egg, until, that is, you find out what's really behind those fancy terms.

Common Food Labels Finally Deciphered

1. Free-Range

Both eggs and poultry can be labeled as "free-range" or "free-roaming." While this conjures up images of hens running freely around a farm, in reality this label can be used as long as the producers have given the poultry "access to the outside." There is no rule as to how long the poultry must have access to the outdoors, nor how large the space must be (the "range" a free-range chicken is exposed to could literally be the size of a desktop or smaller).

2. Organic

All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines (verified by a USDA-approved independent agency):

  • Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for 3 years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.

  • Prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms and irradiation.

  • Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices.

  • Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.

  • Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.

  • Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.

  • Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.

  • Keep records of all operations.

However, not all "organic" products are created equal. If a product contains the "USDA Organic" seal, it means that 95 to 100 percent of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients can still advertise "organic" ingredients on the front of the package, however, and products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients can identify them on the side panel.

3. Natural

Be very wary of "natural" claims on labels, as usually it can mean just about anything. The claim is only regulated by the USDA in the case of meat and poultry, where "natural" means no artificial ingredients or colors have been added, and the product has been minimally processed. When a product says "natural" be sure they define exactly what they mean or don't be swayed by the designation.

4. Pasture-Raised

Pasture-raised poultry have been raised on a pasture where they're able to eat grass. However, it's not typically in a free-roaming capacity. The birds are usually raised in movable pens that are dragged around a pasture every few days to give access to fresh grass.

5. Grass-Fed

This means the animal was fed grass, rather than grains (which is what most cattle are fed). However, a "grass-fed" label doesn't mean the animal necessarily ate grass its entire life. Some grass-fed cattle are "grain-finished," which means they ate grains from a feedlot prior to slaughter. Check the fine print on the label for this important distinction.

6. Heritage

A "heritage" label describes a rare or antique breed of livestock. These animals are prized for their rich taste and usually contain a higher fat content than commercial breeds.

Grass-fed cattle

Grass-fed cattle must be fed grass (rather than grains, as most cattle are fed). But check the fine print; if it says "grain-finished" it means the cattle spent the latter part of their life eating grains in a feedlot.

7. Wild Game

Contrary to the label, almost all "wild game" found in restaurants is farm-raised. Farm-raised wild game tends to have a milder flavor than truly wild game.

8. Healthy

Foods labeled "healthy" must be low in fat and saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Certain foods must also contain at least 10 percent of one or more of vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber.

9. Fat- or Calorie-Free

Foods labeled fat- or calorie-free must have none or only a trivial amount of the ingredient (such as fewer than 0.5 g of fat and fewer than 5 calories per serving). However, keep in mind that since many people eat more than one serving of food, you may end up getting some fat and/or calories.

10. Fresh

The "fresh" label can only be used on food that is raw, has never been frozen or heated, and contains no preservatives. However, "fresh" foods can be irradiated.

11. Fair Trade

The "fair trade" label means that farmers and workers in developing countries have received a fair wage and have had decent working conditions while growing/packaging the product.

12. Good Source

If a food claims to be a good source of something, say calcium, one serving of the food must contain 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Recommended Value for that nutrient.

Recommended Reading

So Now What Exactly Does Certified Organic Mean? Is it Really Organic?

Food Nutrition Labels: Six Catches You Need to Know


U.S. Food and Drug Administration

U.S. Department of Agriculture

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