Sticker Shock: What the Labels on Your Food Actually Mean


By Scott Brown Food used to be so easy. You gathered some greens and fruits, hunted down some protein and then stuffed your face. No ethics or quality standards to temper your hungry primal appetite. But walking around the Evanston Farmers’ Market or the aisles of Whole Foods, with labels like “organic” and “free-range” shouting at us from the shelves, our decisions aren’t so easy. Before you congratulate yourself for spending extra on that nice-sounding certification, take a second to learn what these buzzwords really mean.














The official certification of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), this label means a USDA-accredited person or organization has given this food the OK. For crops, it means no synthetic fertilizers or USDA-prohibited pesticides, no genetically-modified-organisms and the use of environmentally-friendly farm practices. As for the barnyard, organic livestock have year-round outdoor access, receive no antibiotics or growth hormones and eat 100 percent organic feed while living under specified welfare conditions. The USDA says organic practices protect soil and water quality and improve animal health.



Calling a food “natural” is like making a campaign speech: It doesn’t say anything meaningful, but it sure sounds good. The Food and Drug Administration has no official definition for “natural”, but it will allow companies to put it on packaging as long as there’s no added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. This leaves plenty of room for high fructose corn syrup and all your favorite antibiotics and growth hormones.


Locally raised

Devoted locavores tout the benefits of local food, claiming it supports local farmers and is more sustainable. But buying your apples at a farmer’s market is no guarantee that they weren’t doused with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; it just happened closer to home. But even this is hard to verify, as there is no official definition of what “local” means. It could be the neighbor’s farm, the Midwest region or even just within the U.S. In the height of the mid-2000s locavore movement, many cited a 100-mile radius as the limit for local. But fun fact: Whole Foods leaves it up to each store to define local for itself.



In most factory farm systems, cattle, pigs and other ruminants spend much of their lives scarfing down corn and other grain in order to fatten them up. To be labeled grass-fed by USDA standards, the animal must eat only grass, hay and related feed for its entire life; however, this doesn’t guarantee any other improved standard. Third-party organizations like the Food Alliance and the American Grassfed Association take their certifications a step further, prohibiting hormones and antibiotics, monitoring humane treatment and requiring greater pasture access for untethered snacking.

free range












Most-often found on egg-cartons, this label often conjures up images of happy chickens bobbing around grassy fields without a care. In reality, the USDA’s definition of “free range” is just one sentence: the producer must demonstrate that the hen has been let outside. Without any time specifications, animal rights activists like PETA say this allows “free range” farmers to stuff thousands of chickens into sheds under unsanitary conditions as long as they’ve seen the sun once in their lives. Other independent certifiers from organizations like Certified Humane or American Humane Certified define “cage-free” as uncaged in a barn but with enough room to perform natural behaviors, and “free-range” as allowed time and space outdoors as well.


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