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What Do Those Food Labels Mean?


Nowadays, trendy restaurants and food stores know that customers are partial to foods that are healthier for humans and the environment than the typical “factory” fare.  So, perhaps you’ve noticed that more and more menus are adorned with terms like “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” steak, “organic” seafood, “free-range” chicken. These labels sound nice, but what do they really mean? Here are some common terms you might encounter and what you might want to read between the lines:

Fruits and Vegetables

“Organic” – Whereas in food stores produce must be USDA-certified to carry the “organic” label, restaurants are allowed to label food as “organic” without regulation. The business may apply for certification, but very few do. So without the explicit “certified,” added, you cannot assume that the food has been produced without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMOs.

“Seasonal” – At best, this indicates a menu item currently in season locally. However,
the term is often used quite loosely as a marketing device, especially by national chain restaurants, which obtain produce from many distant locales where it may, indeed, be in season before being shipped to faraway places.  Therefore, the food is not harvested in the actual environs of the restaurant you may be sitting in and, thus, not at the peak of flavor and freshness. If you care about helping the local farming economy, ask your server where ingredients are sourced.

“Foraged” or “Gathered” – These terms refer to foods like mushrooms, berries, etc., handpicked from local wild woods or fields either by a chef or professional supplier. However, in practice, there are many grey areas when it comes to health codes. Some health departments disallow the term if the food is not obtained from a specific “approved source.” Other states are much looser and do not consider where the gathering occurred, which could mean ravaging of wild areas where animals are dependent on access to sufficient edible plants for survival.

Beef or Pork

“Organic”: This term is very specific. The meat must come from animals raised on 100% organic feed, i.e., no GMOs and without antibiotics or hormones. The animals may be vaccinated, and if they get sick, may be given painkillers and a few approved synthetics, but if given antibiotics, the meat can no longer be labeled “organic.” The animals must also have “access to pasture,” consuming at least 30% of their diet from the pasture over at least 120 days during grazing season.

“Free-Range” – This term is more open to interpretation than “organic.” USDA defines “certified free-range” meat as derived from animals who’ve been raised in an area with unlimited food, water and continuous access to outdoors. The “outdoor” space, however, may be fenced in with no guidelines on how much time they should be spending there. Without the “certified” on the label, free-range is very open to creative interpretation.

“Grass-Fed” – (Beef only) Cattle are fed a grass-heavy diet which is their natural source of nourishment. Pigs and chickens prefer a more grain-heavy diet, so grass is not really a choice. “Grass-fed” differs from “organic” in that organically-raised animals may be fed a grain mixture. “Grass-fed” animals, however, may receive antibiotics and do not necessarily have access to pasture; they may simply be fed grass indoors for convenience or seasonal reasons.

“Pasture-Raised” – This term sounds lovely, but government regulators have yet to clearly define it. Generally, it refers to animals allowed access to pasture grazing, but they may be fed a grain mix, rather than grass.

“Natural” or “All Natural” – These are basically meaningless terms, indicating nothing about whether or not the animal was raised according to organic or sustainable principles. By law “natural” meat and poultry comes from animals which can receive antibiotics, hormones, GMO grains and can be raised in CAFOs (factory farms).

Chicken or Eggs

“Organic” –  Organic poultry products come from animals raised on 100% organic feed with no antibiotics or hormones. Animals are also required to have access to outdoor space, but the quality of that space is open to loose interpretation. The space could be caged or covered with netting. Chickens may be confined in close quarters for transport or starved for short periods to force molting, which speeds up egg-laying. Other farm-raised fowl, like duck or pheasant, are not required to adhere to these guidelines.

“Free-Range” – This refers only to living space, not feed or production methods, so it’s less specific than “organic.” Generally speaking, compared to factory farm-raised chickens that are allowed personal space about the size of sheet of printer paper, free-range animals get more room, but how much more is not defined.

“Natural” – Though usually defined as food minimally processed without artificial additives, there’s lots of room for maneuvering. All fresh-caught game may be considered “natural.”

“Cage-Free” – This refers to birds housed without cages so they’re able to stretch their wings and lay eggs in nests, as they would naturally. However, cage-free chickens often have their beaks clipped to reduce pecking of other birds, and male chicks are generally disposed of upon hatching.


“Farm-Raised” – USDA has not determined a definition for “organic” fish because of so many variables, especially when it comes to diet. Thus, at this point, fish is either considered “wild” or “farm-raised.” Therefore, be skeptical if you see “organic farm-raised. ” Fish farms are generally known to use GMO feed, antibiotics, growth hormones and artificial dyes. The most commonly farmed are tilapia and shellfish like oysters, mussels and bay scallops.

“Wild” – While raised without deliberate use of antibiotics or synthetics, wild fish are often transported long distances to market, so freshness may be an issue. Most wild salmon is only caught in summer months, so “fresh” wild salmon on a winter menu may be suspect. Atlantic salmon is illegal to catch in the wild, so it’s fair to assume that, if this appears on a menu, it’s farm-raised. Pacific salmon may be either farm-raised or wild.

“Line-Caught” – Most commercial fishing boats use huge nets to scoop up large fish, like tuna, which also end up hauling in a lot of other marine life, e.g., turtles and small whales. Using fishing poles cuts down on this waste and overfishing. Also, line-caught fishing is more labor intensive, so smaller operations of local fishermen are employed which are a boon to small fishing communities. Though this term says nothing about the quality of the fish, it is worthy of support from an ecological and economic vantage point.

Other Terms You Might Encounter

“Local” – Though definitions vary, the typical standard is that a locally produced agricultural food product should come from within 400 miles of its origin.

“Market fresh” – This may come from local farmers’ market food stalls or simply indicate that the food is as fresh as it would be had it come from an actual farmer’s market.

“Fair Trade” – There is no government regulation for “fair trade” at this point. Third parties, however, have implemented their own strict guidelines and marked products with a seal. The seal indicates that the food has been grown under safe working conditions by workers paid a living wage and guaranteed the right to organize. Workers are also taught sustainable farming practices, but not everything is produced “organically.” Generally, fair-trade farms are small operations, but large farms are now following the guidelines and getting certified.

The moral of all this is: you can’t know everything about the food items you encounter on a menu or in a marketplace, but, if you understand the labels you see and ask questions to clarify as much as possible, you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re eating. And more often than not, those who are serving you won’t have a clue what the labels mean either and will have to ask someone higher up in the operation, so you’ll be putting all on notice that consumers care about what they’re putting into their bodies. Food and words matter!


USDA Organic Labeling Standards
USDA: What is Organic?
Food Labels Explained –
Distinguishing Marketing Claims for grass-fed, organic and pasture-raised livestock –
“Understanding Organic Labels: What they really mean” –
Meat Labels –
“You want to order a natural, organic, free-range meal, but you don’t know what that means” by Sara Boboltz