Tutorial Tuesday #5–What Does That Label Mean?

Tutorial Tuesday #5–What Does That Label Mean?

Many, many years ago, I had breakfast at a diner in upstate New York that was cute and kitschy and seemed like the place you could get a mean plate of hash or scrambled eggs and sausage. On the menu, I noticed that they served “fresh squeezed” orange juice. It was on the menu just like that, quotes and all. I had just moved from Florida, where fresh orange juice was never in quotes, so I did not understand this. I asked the waitress, does this mean the juice is really fresh or does it mean that it is not fresh? She did not have a great deal of patience, but I hate orange juice from a can, so I kept asking her questions. After a round of this, she gave up and brought me the can (ta da!) so I could see that on the label, it said “fresh squeezed”. For reals.

Food labels. There are so many of them, but only a few have actual meaning. Even at the farmer’s markets, farmers are more savvy about giving us information about their products. But what should we look for and what labels are just marketing? Here in our Tuesday tutorial is a synopsis of food labels you should look for and what they mean!

Labels to Look For

sustainable seafood

Certified Sustainable Seafood

This logo and certification is given by the Marine Stewardship Council and guarantees that the fish in question was caught using sustainable harvesting protocol and that the entire chain of custody of that fish was sustainable (click HERE to see the protocol). Becoming an MSC certified fishery is a voluntary process and only applies to wild-caught fish, not farm-raised fish.


Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved audits, certifies and supports independent family farmers raising their animals according to the highest animal welfare standards, outdoors on pasture or range. Factory farms cannot apply to be AWA certified. The AWA seal ensures that all animals are treated humanely from birth to slaughter and that the animal did not receive antibiotics unless they were sick. This is considered the gold standard for animal welfare labels.

Certified Humane_

Certified Humane Raised and Handled

This is a slightly less rigorous standard developed by animal scientists and veterinarians and applies to more than just family farms. Like the AWA certification, this covers animals birth to slaughter and guarantees that animals did not receive antibiotics unless they were sick. To see more information, click HERE.


USDA Certified Organic

This seal, given by the United States Department of Agriculture, guarantees that at least 95% of the ingredients in a given food product are certified organic. This means that those organic items are produced without synthetic fertilizers, most synthetic pesticides or GMOs (genetically engineered crops). Meat that has this label comes from animals that did not receive antibiotics, growth hormones or genetically modified feed. This cannot be used for seafood.


American Grassfed

The American Grassfed label applies to beef, bison, goat, lamb and sheep. This label, given by the American Grassfed Association, requires that farmers met the following criteria: Animals are fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest; Animals are raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots; Animals are never treated with antibiotics or growth hormones; All animals are born and raised on American family farms. For more information, click HERE.

Labels That May Be Ok

Some other labels that are not guaranteed, but may be at your farmer’s market are those below. This becomes a trust issue as you cannot verify that the statements are true, but here is what they should mean:

Pesticide-free–crops may have been grown conventionally or include GMOs, but were grown without synthetic pesticides.

Grown with organic protocol–Crops may be grown using organic methods, but the farm itself is not certified organic.

Raised Without Antibiotics, USDA Process Verified–this means that an animal received no antibiotics during its lifetime. This ONLY means something if the “USDA Process Verified” is included. This means that the USDA confirms that this is true.

Labels to Ignore

Free-range–This label for poultry products means absolutely nothing. A supplier can claim this as long as they provide 5 minutes of fresh air per day, even if the animal is still contained in a small cage in a building.

Antibiotic Free–This is not a recognized label with criteria and verification.

Fresh (animals)–The label of “fresh” in animal products is meaningless. Chicken can be labelled “fresh” as long as the temperature of the bird never goes below 26 degrees farenheit. That is below freezing! Fresh when used for vegetables actually meets certain protocol.

Heart Healthy–There is no standard for claiming something is “heart healthy”.

Natural–There is no standard or criteria for any food product being labelled “natural”.

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