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5 common terms on food labels and what they actually mean

Lorna Jane
(Photo: Lorna Jane)

No, you’re not the only one in aisle seven who doesn’t know the difference between pesticide-free and organic.

Navigating the grocery store can be mind-boggling even for smart, health-conscious women. Sure, there are terms like cage-free and grass-fed to look for, but what do those labels actually mean, and is anyone regulating their use?

Culinary nutritionist Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN, has made it her mission to decode food marketing madness, which she parses out in her new book (with a great title), What the Fork Are You Eating?

“The most important thing to remember about these labels is that they are legally defined by our government in the USDA or the FDA, but they are not regulated,” Sacks explains. “If you claim you are producing antibiotic-free poultry, you can slap that on your package, but no one’s going to check it. That’s really very scary.”

What the fork 1
(Photo: What The Fork Are You Eating?)

To help you deal with this massive loophole, in her book Sacks provides useful definitions for food label lingo and introduces you to third-party organizations verifying some of the terms, like Animal Welfare Approved or the Non-GMO Project, who will stamp their label on products if they meet their standards. “You can trust most of these third party verifiers, but you have to understand what their standards are,” Sacks says. “They may not live up to what you expect from your food.”

In case your healthy head is spinning, we asked Sacks to explain five of the most common terms you’ll find on food labels. Here’s what they really mean and who is (or isn’t) regulating whether the manufacturer is being totally honest.

1. Whole grain. This label is found on grain-based products, like bread, with “independent third-party verification through the Whole Grains Council.” It means that “the entire seed” is the grain ingredient, not a refined version that is stripped of nutrients, which is a good thing. But there’s a caveat: If the seal just says “whole grain,” it indicates there are at least eight grams of whole grain ingredients, Sacks explains, not that it’s totally whole grain. Look for the “100 percent whole grain” seal to go all the way.

2. Pastured/Pasture-raised. You’ll see it on eggs, chicken breasts, and even ground beef. However, there is no verification system that something is “pasture-raised” and the USDA actually has no definition for it “due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems.” While Animal Welfare Approved will sometimes verify something as “pasture-raised,” Sacks calls this “a potentially meaningless term.” In other words, don’t pay extra for it.

3. Cage-free. Also found on poultry and eggs, there is no verification system for this label, either. The USDA cites that cage-free “indicates that the flock was able to freely roam” but since it’s so vague and there’s no way to prove that, Sacks says this one is meaningless, too. Basically, the only way to ensure that the chicken had a lovely life with plenty of exercise is to buy straight from a farmer you trust or research a brand. If you’re worried about the chickens eating GMO corn or being contaminated with antibiotics, look for the USDA certified organic seal.

4. Fair trade. This refers to “any non-animal edible” from bananas to tea and is verified by several organizations like Fair Trade International, Institute for Market Ecology, Ecosocial, and Fair Trade USA. And while they each use slightly different criteria, they all check for better working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for producers likely to be exploited. So, if you’re shopping with a social conscious, this is actually a safe one to lean on. Sacks points out that “products can be 100 percent fair trade or have more than 20 percent fair trade ingredients,” and it isn’t always easy to tell which, so you’re better off buying single-ingredient fair-trade products like coffee.

5. Grassfed. For cattle, sheep, goats, and bison, “grassfed” is defined by the USDA as “grass and forage being the feed source consumed for lifetime,” which is a pretty solid definition except it does permit some “incidental grain supplementation.” So if you’re a stickler for making sure the cow really never ate a kernel of corn, Sacks says you can trust the third-party verifiers on this—look for a stamp from the American Grassfed Assocation, Animal Welfare Approved, or Food Alliance organizations. And don’t be fooled by the term “grass-finished,” Sacks says, which is loosely defined and unverified. —Jamie McKillop

For more information visit and check out What the Fork Are You Eating?