A walk through a large grocery store can often leave one feeling bombarded and disoriented, unless we know exactly what we want. Different varieties and brands of food capture our attention, each with their own cocktail of ingredients and defining labels.

Many of the labels we see on food today include organic, gluten-free, all natural, and free range. But plenty of people create associations for these words without truly knowing what they stand for. In addition, there’s a different certification and regulation process for each of these labels, with some more strictly regulated than others. Below are explanations behind 8 common food labels that can improve your food shopping experience, and help you decipher which labels are important, and which are too loosely defined to mean much.


This is perhaps the most common food label we see nowadays, automatically sparking the notion that a food labelled with it must mean it’s healthier (albeit slightly more expensive). But what does “organic” really stand for?

Organic food labels are more tightly regulated by the USDA than most other labels: they must consist of at least 95 percent “organically produced ingredients.” The other 5 percent must be on the National List created by the USDA. Organically produced ingredients may not involve the following things: antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. In order to have a product labeled organic, producers must submit an application for certification, providing the USDA with history of ingredients for the past three years. The USDA will also inspect production sites along with annual and unannounced inspections post-certification. Whether organic foods are more healthy than regular foods is to be debated.


“Natural” is a loose term for products that are not allowed to contain artificial ingredients or preservatives, according to the USDA definition. The ingredients inside “natural” foods are “minimally processed,” meaning they were not altered on a fundamental level. “Processed is code for ‘junk’ foods — foods of minimal nutritional value,” Marion Nestle, nutrition and public policy expert, told SFGate. “These crowd the center aisles of supermarkets, add loads of unneeded calories, rely on added nutrients for health benefits, last forever on the shelves and generate enormous profits for their makers.” Minimally processed usually involves washing, aging, drying, freezing, canning, pasteurizing, or cooking the food; but actual processing changes foods — by adding fat and sugar calories, salt, colors, flavors, and various other substances to make the food taste better while reducing nutritional value.

Foods with the “natural” label, however, are not very closely regulated — so go for organic instead, since most organic foods will be minimally processed.


Though this can be a loose term, “local” or locally grown usually pertains to the location from which the food product was made and produced; the USDA defines it as “related to the distance between food producers and consumers,” and “defined in terms of social and supply chain characteristics.” Local is not regulated or officially defined — some locavores (people who strictly eat food from their local or regional food supply) define local as having a distance of 100 miles from farm to table, while Whole Foods defines it as 200 miles. Locally grown food is frequently organic.


Sustainable typically refers to economic qualities rather than nutritional qualities of food, and it’s quite a loose term that can be interpreted in different ways, depending on who you ask. “Sustainable agriculture” was defined by Congress in the 1990 “Farm Bill,” in which it was associated with being safe and enhancing for the environment, and efficient in terms of resources and integrating natural biological cycles. “In our experience the most sustainable food producers are family farmers and the family-owned businesses that have a personal connection to the land they work and the food they create,” Dr. John Salerno, a food writer, writes on the Huffington Post. “The best family farmers and ranchers see themselves as stewards of the land. They want that land to be healthy and productive when they pass it on to a new generation.” Meanwhile, “Big, corporate agribusinesses run factory-style farms with a hard eye toward reducing the costs of production.”

Free Range

Food products labelled “free range” or “cage free” pertains to those created from animals that are not allowed to be contained in any way, and must be allowed to wander freely over open areas of land. However, because this particular label isn’t closely regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and no applications or certification are required, producers still use the label freely even if the animals are tightly confined — as long as they don’t use cages. Another term, “grass fed,” is not quite the same as free range but typically refers to animals that are frequently allowed to roam and graze in unconfined areas; however, by definition, grass fed refers to animals allowed to graze rather than be “grain fed,” meaning it was raised in a feedlot and consists of lower nutritional value.


The FDA issued a “gluten-free” food label in 2013 that would assist the 3 million people in America who suffer from celiac disease and are unable to consume gluten. Foods containing gluten will trigger antibodies in people with the disease that will attack the small intestine. Though “gluten-free” foods have become somewhat trendy, people who are capable of eating gluten will not nutritionally benefit from gluten-free foods.


Currently, the FDA does not require food producers to label products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — and the debate over that decision continues. Many claim that GMOs are harmful and ought to be removed from food, or at least labelled, while giant food corporations like Coca-Cola and Kraft are pouring millions into lobbyists to defeat bills aimed at labelled GMOs in products.

GMOs are the consequence of a production process that places genes from one species into the genes of another to create a more desirable product. Since most food won’t label whether it contains GMOs or not, look for foods that contain this seal. In addition, most organic foods aren’t allowed to contain GMOs.