How to Decode Food Labels

Let’s face it, when it comes to reading food labels, things can easily get confusing. What’s the difference between organic and non-organic? Cage free vs. free range? Whole grain vs. wheat? Believe it or not, there is usually a huge difference. Food labels can be purposefully deceiving and at the end of the day, you might be paying more for a product, thinking it’s healthy, when it won’t really help you meet your health goals.

Use this page as a resource to educate yourself about the differences in food labels and help you make decisions next time your selecting products at the grocery store.

1. Organic

The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows:

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.

Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

2. grass-fed

USDA Grass Fed

This program requires that ruminant animals be fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Animals certified under this program cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

Grass-fed doesn’t necessarily mean the cow was fed a grass diet their entire lives. It means they were started on a grass-fed diet, and may have been fed grains for the remainder of their lives, which is actually grass-fed, grain-finished beef.

In other words, as long as the cow was fed greenery at one point in its life, it can be labelled as grass-fed beef.

Note that on January 12, 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service withdrew the Grass (Forage) Fed Claim for Ruminant Livestock and the Meat Products Derived from Such Livestock (Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard)”. AMS will no longer verify applicant’s programs to the Standard.

100% Grass-Fed/Finished Beef

Grass-finished beef means the cow was fed grass — and nothing but grass and plants — for the duration of its life. So while grass-fed cows will still contain omega 3 essential fatty acids, CLA, and other beneficial nutrients, grass-finished beef is ultimately the most nutrient dense beef you can buy, and ideally what to look for when you purchase beef.

For more information:


(Source: Vital Farms)


is regulated by the USDA, but it only means that the hens don’t live in cages. The term does not specify or indicate how much space they have, or whether or not they see the outdoors. Typically these hens are in a barn or other similar facility. Their living conditions can be cramped, but it isn’t always the case. If cafe-free eggs comes with a certified humane status given by the HFAC, that means the hens were given at least 1.5 square foot of space each.


is also a term regulated by the USDA, and it means hens were given continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. This does not guarantee that a hen ever actually stepped foot outside, it just means there was a way for them to do so. 

It’s one step more humane than cage-free in philosophy, but according to NPR, it might just mean that the hens had a “few small doors that lead to a screened-in porch with cement, dirt or a modicum of grass.” To be free-range and certified humane, there must be a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per bird.



is not regulated by the USDA. But in order for pasture-raised eggs to also be labeled certified humane, it means that the ladies were given ample space to roam outdoors ―we’re talking 108 square feet ― but also have access to a barn for cover. This mandated space means there’s ample room to allow for rotating the flocks, ensuring that they have fresh food to pick at.

Here’s a graphic, provided by Vital Farms, that gives a visual for what these different terms may look like.

4. 100% Whole Grain

100% Whole Grain

The 100% Stamp assures you that a food contains a full serving or more of whole grain in each labeled serving and that ALL the grain is whole grain.

Foods with the following words on the label are usually not 100% whole-grain products.

- 100% wheat
- Multi-grain
-Contains whole grain
- 7 grains
- Cracked wheat
- Made with whole grains
- Made with whole wheat
- Bran

#Neeks Tip

Look for the word "whole" before the first ingredient.

5. Cold Pressed

Cold Pressed Juices

Cold-pressed juice is made with a hydraulic press that uses thousands of pounds of pressure to extract the maximum amount of liquid from fresh fruits and vegetables. No additional heat or oxygen is used in the process, meaning that no nutrients are lost in the heat of traditional pasteurization.

Cold Pressed Oils

Because cold-pressed oil is processed at lower temperatures it does not alter the properties of the oil which contains a higher phenolic and nutrient content than expeller-pressed oil. Cold pressed oils retain all their flavor, aroma, and nutritional value, making these oils great for cooking. They contain zero grams of trans fatty acids (trans fat) and are naturally cholesterol-free.

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