It can be hard to make informed food choices at the store amid all the "healthy" labels - organic, sustainable, fair trade, natural, free range, hormone free, etc. So what do they all really mean?
Organic- you are guaranteed that products labeled "USDA organic" are at least 95 percent free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and sewage sludge and that they haven’t been genetically modified or irradiated. No hormones or antibiotics are allowed; animals must be fed organically-grown feed and have access to the outdoors.
Sustainable- are crops that are raised in ways that don’t harm the environment, are humane to animals, and support farm workers and farming communities. Not all sustainable foods are organic — most come from small family farms which may not have the resources to get organic certification which is expensive and time-consuming.
Fair Trade - certifies that farmers in developing countries have received a fair price for products like coffee and chocolate which are grown in a sustainable way.
GMO - a genetically modified organism, is one whose genetic material has been deliberately altered. Genes are combined from different organisms and the resulting organism is said to be “genetically modified,” or “genetically engineered." The long term effects of these products are unknown.
Natural - “natural” is not regulated at all, however USDA guidelines state that: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color that is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled ‘natural.’ The label must explain the use of the term (such as no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed).” Thus, natural products should have no artificial preservatives, chemical additives artificial sweeteners, no hydrogenated oils, no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and no synthetics. They cannot be irradiated. This term certainly does not necessarily mean it is a healthy product, be sure to read the ingredients label - high fructose corn syrup is considered "natural" as it is made from corn.
Locally Grown - refers to crops produced no more than 150 miles from where they’re purchased. The emphasis is on seasonal, fresh produce, meats and dairy products however these crops may have been raised with pesticides.
Antibiotic-Free - an unregulated term which foods are labeled "no antibiotics administered" or "raised without antibiotics," which means animals were raised entirely without these substances. Concerns have been raised that antibiotic use in cattle causes antibiotic resistant bacteria to develop, threatening human health.
Hormone-Free - there are no regulations on this term, however all pork and chicken are raised hormone free as these substances are banned from use when raising pigs and chickens. Controversy surrounds the artificial hormone rBGH which increases milk production, it is banned in most countries due to concerns over its effects on humans and animals.
Free Range - chickens aren’t confined to cages and are granted access to the outdoors, however the USDA only requires limited outdoor time and conditions can still be crowded and dirty. There is no regulation for this term.
Grass-Fed - cattle raised largely on grass and hay are referred to as "grass-fed", however there are no government regulations or inspections required to use this term.