"Free Range" vs "Organic" How to Read Food Labels

Food labels. Are they indicators of how healthy our food is or just various forms of marketing? What is the difference between "free range" and "pasture raised"? Why are there so many different choices of eggs?

I hope I can help break down some of the confusion regarding the words you commonly see on foods - particularly animal products. In an effort to help you make better choices when you are spending your hard earned cash.

This is a guide I adapted from the USDA meat and poultry guidelines, you can find here.

  • Natural - "A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed."

So no synthetic chemicals, but still may include things like GMOs, chemical fertilizers, & pesticides. Example: high fructose corn syrup - natural, but completely unhealthy.

  • Organic - “Organic” can be used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5 percent of the ingredients may be non-organic agricultural products that are not commercially available as organic."

Organic produce is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but meat labeled "organic" is simply fed an organic grain mix that may still be inappropriate for them to digest. Processed foods can be labeled "organic" and be extremely unhealthy.

  • Free Range - "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."

When chicken products are labeled simply as "free range" it means they spent the 7 weeks of their lives in a 20,000 bird shed with a tiny door on one end that gave access to the outdoors. The door remains closed for the first 5 weeks of life, open for the last 2 weeks, and then the chickens are typically killed. (see also "Cage Free")

  • Pasture-raised - the USDA does not have a description of this on their site, however this indicates that the animals were allowed to roam on a pasture where they could move freely and forage for their food. This is the closest to how animals would exist in nature and the highest quality choice you can make.

If pasture-raised is not indicated, assume the animals lived in tight quarters indoors and fed a diet that may be inappropriate for them to handle.

  • Grass-fed - also not found on the USDA site, this term applies to cows who ate a natural diet of predominantly grass on pasture. They are not given antibiotics or hormones but may be finished with grain depending on where they are raised. "Grass-finished" indicates the cows were fed grass their entire lives. This is the best choice you can make when buying beef.

There are many other clever terms found on products you typically see these days that are placed there simply to trick you into thinking they are healthy. For example, "sugar free" does not mean there is not added artificial sweetener, it is actually most likely the complete opposite.

Make good choices, ask me for help. I am more than happy to sit down with you to explain nutritional choices in more detail or answer any specific questions you may have!