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Food label descriptions defined

The Arizona Republic

Eating healthfully requires label literacy – knowing what such designations as “all-natural” and “free-range” mean.

Today’s food labels can confuse even health-savvy shoppers.

Take “all natural,” which implies that the food is as close to nature as possible. In reality, the government requires that natural meats, poultry and dairy food contain only ingredients natural to the product. That means no artificial colors or preservatives. The label doesn’t address how the food was raised.

“Natural,” “free-range” and a host of other common labels are unregulated guidelines.

Here are a few of the most common food labels and what they mean.


This label is certified by federal inspectors, and certified products must carry a U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal. Certified organic foods are produced without toxic pesticides, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones and irradiation. Misuse of the organic label carries a $10,000 fine.

USDA allows three labeling options, each based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product:

• 100 percent organic: Only products using exclusively organic methods.

• Organic: At least 95 percent of ingredients in a processed product have been organically produced. The remaining ingredients must be natural or synthetic ingredients recommended by the National Organic Standards Board.

• Made with organic: Products with 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients.


Labels outlining salt, sugar, fat and calories can be deceiving. The “fat-free” craze is one example. To compensate for reduced fat, food makers added sugar, salt and extra calories. Read labels carefully to see what has been added or removed. And pay close attention to serving size. That wallet-size bag of chips you ate at lunch was probably a serving for two.


This label implies that the animal was raised roaming fields and hills eating grass and hay, but grass-fed does not necessarily mean pasture-raised. The animals can be fed harvested grasses, and the voluntary labeling requires no verification.


Birds raised for meat, mainly chickens and turkeys, may be sold as free range if they have access to the outdoors. No other criteria – environmental quality, size of pen or population density – apply.


These laying birds are not raised in traditional cages, but that doesn’t mean they’re allowed to run free outdoors. They can be raised on the floor of a poultry house or barn and never get outside.


Also called “ocean raised,” farmed fish are raised in pens in the ocean or freshwater ponds and fed antibiotics. Environmentalists claim the amounts of antibiotics in farm-raised fish are harmful, but some food-safety experts say the levels are within acceptable limits and similar to those found throughout our food supply.