The Ultimate Guide to Navigating Food Labels

Navigating the food labels at the grocery store can be a little overwhelming.

“Is Non-GMO the same as organic?”

“What’s the difference between free-range and pasture raised?”

“Is grass-fed important?”

Like I said…overwhelming.

Understanding what the labels on your food mean is an important part of eating a healthy diet. Remember, you are what your food eats. If the animals are fed antibiotics, hormones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and pesticide-laden crops then you’re eating it too.

So let’s break down all the food labels you’ll come across during your trip to the grocery store. Some of the labels apply to animals only, while a few apply to both animals and plant-based foods.


Applies to: animals and plant-based foods.

Food labelled “natural,” doesn’t contain any added vitamins or minerals, artificial ingredients, or preservatives. The food has not been processed to alter its original state. However, it can contain antibiotics, hormones or chemicals via how the animals were raised and the produce is grown. The label is evaluated, but producers are not required to be certified.

Raised Without the Use of Antibiotics

Applies to: animals.

The term “raised without the use of antibiotics” is regulated. The animal may not have been treated with antibiotics, administered by any method, from birth to slaughter or harvest. Although, the animal is still allowed to have a long list of other pharmaceutical drugs.

It’s important to note that the terms “antibiotic-free”, “fed no antibiotics”, and any other variations are NOT regulated.

Raised Without the Use of Added Hormones

Applies to: animals.

In Canada and the US, hormones are permitted in non-organic beef cattle, but prohibited in chickens. Eggs or poultry that have been labelled “raised without the use of added hormones” or any other variation is misleading and often a marketing term.

“Raised Without the Use of Added Hormones” means hormones may not be administered to the lactating mother in any manner which would result in increased hormone levels in the animal. Hormonal growth promoters are banned in the European Union but still approved for use in both Canada and the US.

The term “hormone-free” is not accepted or regulated as meat and poultry naturally contain hormones.

“Furnished” or “enriched” cages

Applies to: poultry and eggs.

Hens have about twice as much space and also separate areas for perching and nesting. The animals are not allowed outside and there are no regulations on how the animals are treated or the type of environment they are kept in.


Applies to: poultry and eggs.

Hens are loose in an open barn, but not allowed outside. There are no regulations on how the animals must be treated and conditions are often just as bad as being kept in battery cages. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency does not have clear definitions of what “free-run” or “free range” means, and so enforcement is tough.

Free Range

Applies to: animals.

This term means that the birds have been given access to roam and graze outdoors. Unfortunately, there are no specific requirements. The length of time spent outdoors or the type of environment they are kept in is not regulated. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency does not have clear definitions of what “free run” and “free range” means, and so enforcement is tough.


Applies to: animals.

In order to fatten up the animals as fast as possible, they are most often fed a grain-based diet. The problem is these animals aren’t meant to eat grain. Their digestive systems are designed to eat grass, seeds, and/or worms and bugs. Eating a grain-based diet causes the animals to contain a much higher fat content than grass-fed meat. They also have higher levels of inflammatory fats that can increase the free radicals in your body. Unless otherwise stated, even organic meat is fed a grain-based diet.

Grass Fed

Applies to: animals.

It’s important to look for the “100% grass-fed” label” as many animals are “grain-fed, grass-finished.” Let’s look at the difference.

  • 100 % grass-fed means the animals have been fed exclusively grass from birth to slaughter.
  • Grass-finished means the animals have had a predominately grain-based diet and fed grass before slaughtering. There is no regulation on “grass-finished,” so the animal could have only been fed grass in it’s last few days.

Pasture Raised

Applies to: animals.

Not a regulated term, but the animals are usually given at least 108 square feet each and consume some feed and lots of grass, bugs, worms and anything else they can find in the dirt. They tend to be let out of the barns early in the morning and called back in before nightfall.


Applies to: animals and plant-based foods.

This term usually means the food has been produced or farmed within a certain distance. However, there’s no standard definition of “local.” Some say 160 km is considered local, while some grocery stores consider 700 km local.


Applies to: animal and plant-based foods.

Food that is living or growing in it’s natural environment and has not been domesticated or cultivated.


Applies to: animal and plant-based foods.

Means there are no genetically modified organisms in the food, but it doesn’t mean its organic. The food may still be produced with pesticides, antibiotics, and no regulations for animal welfare.

Free of Pesticides Residue

Applies to: plant-based foods.

This term can be misleading. Growing practices may involve direct, indirect use of or exposure to pesticide or pest control product. The crops can still be exposed to pesticides residue through soil or water contamination or chemical runoff.

Made with Organic Ingredients

Applies to: plant-based foods.

Foods with this labelling must consist of at least 70% organic ingredients and none of the ingredients can be produced with sewage-sludge based products or ionizing radiation.

Organic Certified

Applies to: animal and plant-based foods.

This regulated term means that the food cannot be produced with:

  • Synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge
  • Genetically modified organisms
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Growth hormones for animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products

The Canada Organic Standard is recognized by both the European Union and the US as equivalent – the only certification system to achieve this broad recognition.

The Verdict

So after all that what do you choose? Your best bet is to stick with Certified Organic and/or 100% Grass-Fed. The end result is food with the least amount of chemicals, most nutritional value, and best animal welfare standards.

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