Speak Up is a series of blogs where CommonGround volunteers from all over the U.S. speak up to answer questions from consumers.

grocery-picAs the 2013 calendar flips over, millions of Americans get a new beginning by looking to live healthier lifestyles in the new year. In addition to extra hours at the gym, many grocery shoppers will also spend more time ensuring their carts are filled with healthier options to feed their families. Today’s plethora of labels and buzzwords that adorn food packaging only makes the trip to the market even more daunting. In fact, many of the labels, such as “grass-fed” and “organic,” that often suggest food is healthier refer only to how it was raised, not to the nutritional content.

Confused? You aren’t alone. Volunteer farmers with the CommonGround program want to help shoppers demystify several common food labels and make their trip to the market a little less stressful.

“We are truly blessed to have so many food choices available to us at the grocery store,” said Missouri farmer and CommonGround volunteer Renee Fordyce. “With so many food options available, I want moms to feel good about their food choices and know that farmers share many of the same values and priorities when it comes to feeding our own families.”

So what exactly do all of the labels mean?

Organic – Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. To be labeled “organic,” a government-approved certifier must inspect the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer meets all the rules necessary to comply with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards.

Free-range – This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.

Cage-free – This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.

Natural – As required by USDA, meat, poultry and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

Grass-finished – Grass-fed and finished animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their lives, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. Also USDA-regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as “grass-fed organic.”

Pasture-raised – Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a labeling policy for pasture-raised products.

Humane – Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.

All of the food labels listed above refer to how food is raised, not to its nutritional value. Source: USDA

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