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Natural and Organic Food Labels

Grocery shopping for healthy foods can be overwhelming.  I find that the products are covered with so many labels, sometimes I grab anything with a label that seems healthy, like “natural” or “made with organic ingredients”.

But the truth is, choosing healthy food deserves more than a quick glance. By reading through the food labels you can find a wealth of knowledge:

  1. Where your food came from.
  2. How the animal was treated.
  3. What the animal was fed.
  4. If the product claims are certified by a third party.

I’ve defined some of the most common labels found on natural and organic foods below.


  • Cage-Free: Hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses but may not have access to the outdoors.
  • Free-Range: Essentially the same as “cage-free”, hens are uncaged and more likely to have access to the outdoors.
  • Vegetarian Fed: The bird’s feed does not contain animal by-products.
  • Certified Organic: The birds lived uncaged inside barns or warehouses and are required to have access to the outdoors.  The land they have access to has to meet national organic growing standards (no synthetic pesticides or GMO’s, for example). The animal feed is organic and the animals are not given any hormones or antibiotics.

Photo by Dave Young


  • Milk From Cows Not Treated With rBST:  rBST is a growth hormone given to cows to increase their milk production.  Consider this in relation to all dairy products, including yogurt, cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese and ice cream.
  • Certified Organic:  The animals are required to have access to the outdoors and are raised on land that meets national organic growing standards (no synthetic pesticides or GMO’s, for example).  The animal feed is organic and the animals are not given any hormones or antibiotics.


  • Grass Fed:  Grass and forage is consumed for the lifetime of the animal, with the exception of milk used prior to weaning.
  • Grain Fed: Multiple types of grain are acceptable under this label including barley, canola, corn, and flaxseed.  For more, see the complete list of acceptable grains.
  • Vegetarian Fed: The animal’s feed does not contain animal by-products.
  • Hormone Free or No Hormones Added: Chicken and pig producers are not allowed to use hormones but beef producers can so this label is more important to look for on beef products.
  • Cage-Free:  Most birds raised for meat are not kept in cages.
  • Free-range:  Indicates the bird had access to the outdoors.
  • Certified Organic:  The animals are required to have access to the outdoors and are raised on land that meets national organic growing standards (no synthetic pesticides or GMO’s, for example).   The animal feed is organic and the animals are not given any hormones or antibiotics.

Photo by ralph and jenny


  • Locally Grown:  Grown and transported less than 400 miles or the product was grown within the state.
  • Certified Organic: Grown without the use of pesticides.  Weeds and insects are controlled naturally.

One more thing to consider. Try not to get sucked in by the term, “natural”.  It’s unregulated by the USDA and can be deceiving.  I’ve purchased cheese labeled “natural” from a company that admits to using milk from cows treated with rBST.    That doesn’t count as “natural” in my book.

To help you decide what labels to look for, determine your family’s priorities and find products that fit those needs. Your family might find that vegetarian fed animals are the most important to your family values or that you’ll only purchase locally grown products.

Photo by i love butter

I also read the ingredient list. I want to know exactly what I’m feeding my family and labels aren’t going to give me all the information I need. With a quick glance, I can look for genetically modified ingredients,  preservatives and other additives that we try to avoid.

Honestly, the best way to know exactly what is in the food your family is eating is to grow your own. Spring officially sprung this week and it’s almost time to start planting.   There are some great tips on Simple Organic this month from planting heirloom seeds to growing strawberries.

What food labels confuse you? Do you find products labeled ‘natural’ that are anything but natural? What is important to you when choosing food for your family?

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  1. Kara

    Natural is probably the most annoying term out there in regards to food (or even personal care). For example, high fructose corn syrup (or “corn sugar” as they’re calling it now) is claimed to be *natural* because it comes from corn. Tell me, how can something be natural when it requires man made chemicals to create it? There are plenty of other examples out there too. I basically ignore the term natural because it’s nearly always misleading or a lie.

    When I shop I look for items in this order: 1. local (often combines with seasonal), 2. in season, 3. organic, 4. the ingredient list, and 5. things I can’t live without (like regular cold cereal; I know it’s bad). Coming this May, I’m going to try to challenge myself more, buy aiming to buy fruits, vegetables, meat, and cheese from the local farmers market and only stop at the grocery store (which does offer a good amount of local and organic foods) for milk and bulk goods (like flour or pasta). It’ll be a challenge, but I think it’ll be fun too.

  2. Rachel

    I agree with Kara, I try and first and foremost buy local and seasonal. Because our budget can’t always handle all organic, when I go to the grocery store I always look at the ingredient list and try and chose items that have short lists of ingredients I recognize. This sometimes means not purchasing the store brand items but it is not always as expensive as organic. It is a fine line you have to walk.
    I have also been trying to make more of my own things like salad dressing, baking mix, stock, cereal and other things that I would normally buy at the store so that I know exactly what is in them and I can cut down on my cost.

  3. Tiffany

    Another good point, Rachel! Cooking from scratch is another way to know exactly what you are eating. I’ve been making spaghetti sauce, taco seasoning, and enchilada sauce from scratch. This summer I’d like to make more snacks from scratch instead of buying granola bars and fruit leather.

  4. Tara C.

    I also look for wild-caught fish. Farm-raised grosses me out!

  5. Krissa

    Very helpful post…thank you!

  6. Ashley

    I agree, natural is such a misused word! Unfortunately so many think they are getting something actually natural when they aren’t. I had to learn that lesson as well. Thank you for sharing this! We buy very little packaged foods but we always read the labels when we do, and we try to buy as locally as possible.

  7. Magic and Mayhem

    Unfortunately, you really can’t put too much stock in any of the labels when it comes to animals these days. Many companies have gotten in trouble for being labeled organic but having feedlot conditions for their dairy cattle, for instance, and the chickens raised in those “free range” or “organic” or “cage free” conditions are often painfully debeaked and crammed into equally terrible places or the companies find creative ways to get around the labels and still be inhumane and unhealthy. We buy our eggs from a local family so we know they were produced in ways that matter to us (and they taste 10 times better than anything in stores).

    I agree that raising your own is the best way to know about it, but also get to know your growers! If you do some sleuthing, you can find a local source of pastured eggs (pastured means mainly raised outdoors in natural living conditions, such as back yard chickens) in most communities, for instance. Use web site like Local Harvest to find people who raise meat, eggs, etc. near you where you can see firsthand how they’re grown. You can also find CSA’s there and get local, organic produce WAY cheaper than in any store.

    We eat almost exclusively natural and organic foods and do it on a REALLY tiny budget (I spend about $125 a week to feed our family of 6, 3 meals a day, and we eat pretty elaborate dinners). I put some of my best tips to do it on a budget here:

  8. Rachel

    “With a quick glance, I can look for genetically modified ingredients, preservatives and other additives that we try to avoid.”

    I believe that the US doesn’t require foods with genetic modification to carry a label.

  9. Elizabeth E.

    I think that most of the time the most important thing that you can do for your health is to read the labels on your food products. I try to buy organic milk, eggs, and produce as much as I can and make everything else from scratch avoiding as much processed food as I can.

    However, there are times that I do buy processed products and I find that reading the ingredient list is key to understanding what I’m letting my family put into their bodies. Even if the product is made from non-organic ingredients if I can recognize each ingredient as a real legitimate food rather than chemical filler than I feel comfortable with the choice.

    Living organic is the best, but life does get in the way sometimes and I find that finding healthy compromise both keeps me sane AND keeps me dedicated to the big picture.

  10. Michelle

    I strongly agree- you really have to be careful about the word natural. I also try to purchase items with the shortest ingredient list and only with ingredients that I recognize. Too many times nasty ingredients are hiding and Kara is right- this is also a big problem with personal care products. Even my local health store seems to carry a lot of things that are not so healthy.

  11. Mu Keyzik


    Great label list! It meshes very well with the spirit of my newly launched site,
    I think you (and your readers — judging by the comments here) would like this article:

    Also, check out the “practical guide” there — it has a section on labels and some other advice — which I might expand after reading this.

    Thanks for the post!


  12. Maggie

    Great post – I’m trying more and more to buy food that doesn’t have labels! It’s sort of a strange revelation to me, but buying foods in their whole form really is best, and then when I put them together in my own kitchen to make crackers, or salads, or what-have-you, I already know the ingredient list. 🙂

  13. Amanda Durio

    Hey there, this was a great helpful post. I have been doing alot of research into this topic and it’s really good to see more people getting involved in such a monumental subject.

  14. cold sores on lips

    My kid loves to eat dairy products, I don’t know why but he is seemingly enjoying eating those foods. And when I go on for a grocery, I assure to it that the nutrition value of those products I bought is of high quality.

  15. Aimee @ Simple Bites

    Tiffany – thanks for this! The word ‘natural’ in labeling drives me nuts, as does ‘whole grain’ and a bunch of other I won’t list. =)

  16. Tiffany

    Aimee – it sounds like you need to write a part 2 of this topic!!

  17. Kai Toth

    Awesome and very informative post Ms Tiffany. Found you through, isn’t EP awesome? Just doing research on what to write next.. thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

  18. Melissa

    Love this article. May I post it on my site, including the picture, and link it back to you? Let me know if you want me to link to Simple Organic or your personal site.


  19. Tiffany

    Hi Melissa,
    You can’t republish the entire post, but you can write an excerpt and publish a link to Simple Organic.
    Thank you!

  20. Emily @ Random Recycling

    I hope “natural” becomes regulated soon so consumers stop getting fooled by these inaccurate labels.

  21. Ana J. Smith

    Hi Tiffany,
    I really like your post.It’s good reminder for us moms to choose carefully when buying foods for our kids. I admit that it’s not an easy task especially when there’s a lot of “natural” products to choose from. Its confusing most of the time. But I guess I have to change my habit and take my time.As the saying goes “health is wealth”

  22. Mom with a Mission

    I buy organic, am a member of a CSA, have an organic garden, etc., but even if a product is labeled “organic”, according to the FDA, it can still contain up to 30% GM ingredients unless labeled “100% organic.”

    The entire topic of GM foods makes me crazy mad and pretty scared about the future of our food source. Currently there is no way to rid your body of Bt Toxins or GM genes…at least that I can find. Do I have to assume that there is no way to repair the damage? By shopping carefully, I at least, hope to minimize the exposure especially for my 8 and 4 year old. It’s virtually impossible to 100% avoid GM foods especially if you eat out or don’t want to be rude and bring your own food at family functions (although there have been times that I would have liked to 🙂 ). Products that are labeled non-GMO or 100% organic aren’t conveniently available (I have to shop at about 7 different stores to get “safe” food). I’m also convinced that GM food was the root cause of my daughter’s life-threatening allergy to peanuts. And, the list of frustrations goes on.

    Maybe someone can answer a question. I can’t find the answer in my research. If eggs, dairy products and other animal by-products are labeled organic does that mean that the feed given to the animals also has to be organic, not GM corn, soy, alfalfa, etc.? Or would you assume that to be the case only if the label states as much?

    Mom with a Mission

  23. Tiffany

    Hi Mom with a Mission,
    Here are the guidelines regarding certified organic food via the USDA for animals used for meat, milk, eggs and other animal products:
    “Producers must feed livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic, but may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.”
    I hope this answers your question!

  24. Colon Hydrotherapy Cleansing

    Will surely recommend this site to some friends! Very interesting site and articles.

  25. frank is one of the better places to get organic animal feed. it is very reliable and their balance in nutrients is excellent.

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