How to Decode Food Labels: Which Claims Really Matter?
Grass-fed. Grass-finished. Pasture-raised. Free-range. Hormone-free. Antibiotic-free. Organic. Natural. The array of labels and terms to navigate when shopping for meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs is downright dizzying.
But there’s also a reason for the label claim madness: When it comes to these categories of foods, there’s a lot more at stake than just the pesticides we worry about in fruits and vegetables. Industrial livestock farming has created a myriad of factors to consider that concern not only your health and what may be in the food, but also animal welfare and the environmental impact.
Complicating matters is the fact that, while all the different terms on labels do inform consumers of what they’re buying, manufacturers’ intentions aren’t always pure or clear.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the terms you see come down to marketing,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan. “If manufacturers can offer a better product, they can charge more and people are usually willing to pay it. But if a manufacturer can instead give the illusion of a better product by slapping on a certain label, it allows them to charge more without actually increasing their costs.” That, of course, boosts the company’s bottom line, but leaves you duped.
Government regulations can sometimes make deciphering labels even trickier, since there are different rules in place for chickens, eggs, milk, beef and seafood. And sly manufacturers may take advantage of the fact that most consumers aren’t aware of them.
For example, milk is never allowed to contain antibiotic residue — and several required testing protocols ensure none slip through. Yet you may still see a label that states “no antibiotics” or “antibiotic-free,” even if the dairy cow was treated with the drugs at some point in their life.
So it pays to educate yourself on what each of the terms and various labels mean. Doing so allows you to make smart decisions about which products are worth buying and even paying extra for. However the two smartest strategies when it comes to buying and consuming animal products have nothing to do with labels, Dr. Rawls says.
2 Label-Free Strategies for Smart Grocery Shopping
1. Eat More Vegetables and Cut Back On Animal Products
Aim to make about 50% of your diet vegetables, and try to swap out animal sources of protein for plant sources like soy foods, beans, and nuts when you can. Plants contain so many key nutrients and phytochemicals that are a boon for your health — animal sources just can’t compete, Dr. Rawls says.
For one, plants contain fiber that helps maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, which has implications for the health of your immune system, digestive tract, brain, and much more. They’re also rich in antioxidants and other compounds that help protect your heart, brain, mitochondria (the “power plants” of cells), and more.
Overall, a diet rich in veggies and fruit has been shown to reduce blood pressure and your risk of heart disease and some types of cancer, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. It also promotes weight loss and keeps blood glucose and insulin levels steady, which controls hunger and could help prevent diabetes. Studies also show a diet loaded with fresh produce is associated with improved longevity.
On the other hand, a high intake of meat, especially processed meat and pork, is linked with higher risk of cardiovascular problems and reduced longevity. For example, one study that looked at the dietary data of nearly 30,000 people over 30 years found that the risk of cardiovascular disease increased by 7% and 3%, respectively, for every additional serving of processed and unprocessed red meat per week. Risk rose 4% for every additional serving of chicken per week over two.
Fish consumption, however, was not linked to heart or other problems. This is likely due in part to its health-protecting omega-3 fatty acids.
2. Buy Directly from Small, Local Farms When You Can
You don’t have to go totally vegetarian in order to live your healthiest life, however, Dr. Rawls says. But if you choose to eat meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy, the best thing you can do for your health — in terms of minimizing exposure to toxins and maximizing healthful nutrients — as well as for the health of the environment and animals is to purchase the products directly from local, sustainable farms or farmers, he says.
On a non-industrial scale, farmers better control what the animals eat and how they’re treated, and they tend to take more steps to ensure environmentally sound farming practices. You can also often visit the farm and ask questions directly.
“Take eggs, for example,” Dr. Rawls says. “The perfect egg comes from a hen that is able to go out every day and forage for worms, insects, and vegetable matter, then, at night, go into its little house where it has room to move around.”
That virtually is unheard of on a conventional industrial farm and perhaps even a large organic operation. Instead, chickens used for conventionally-produced eggs often spend all or most of their time crammed into a warehouse or even a cage with thousands of others, where they’re fed a steady diet of corn, grain, and potentially antibiotics, he says.
“You can tell the difference in the yolks — conventional yolks are often a pale yellow and bland,” says Dr. Rawls. “Farm egg yolks, meanwhile, are a bright vibrant orange and highly flavorful, because they’re loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and all kinds of wonderful antioxidants.”
The issues, of course, are cost and availability. Eggs, dairy, and meat from these smaller farms tend to be several times the cost of conventional products — and they can be hard to find at a local supermarket. The best place to connect with a local farm is at your neighborhood farmer’s market.
“But you’ll usually end up paying $6 or even $7 for a carton of eggs,” Dr. Rawls says. “Even if a smaller farm can scale production to sell their products in a grocery store, the cost is still going to be quite high.”
Use This Glossary to Decode Food Labels
If buying direct from farmers isn’t an option, the next best thing is to look on labels to find the healthiest and best products. It’s not always easy, but knowing the truth of what’s behind the terms will help. Here’s the terminology you’re most likely to come across, what claim means, and what to consider when deciding where to spend your money.
USDA Certified Organic
This green seal, which may appear on meat, dairy, and egg products, means the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has certified that the manufacturers follow a strict set of standards and guidelines around animal welfare, health, environmental, and other concerns.
For example, animals must be given access to the outdoors, including a pasture for cows, sheep, and goats, and any supplemental feed given must be organic and non-genetically modified (or non-GMO). Likewise, animals are never given growth hormones or antibiotics. If they get sick and require medication, they’re removed and not certified.
For those reasons — and the fact that organic products are now widely available and becoming increasingly affordable — defaulting to organic can be a simple and sound choice when shopping. But know that organic doesn’t mean everything’s perfect.
Although these animals have access to the outdoors, their diets are often still supplemented with grain or other feed. For instance, for a cow to be certified organic, it need only graze for a minimum of about 4 months of the year, which is a fraction of its lifespan. (See grass-fed and grass-finished section below for more information.)
As far as the treatment of animals, organic doesn’t necessarily equal cruelty-free, either. There may be little or no oversight on whether the animals are slaughtered humanely, and physical alterations to animals may be performed, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It’s been reported both that they could end up suffering more due to increased exposure to the elements outdoors, and that because antibiotics are banned, some organic farms may opt to leave livestock sick and untreated rather than remove them from the line and take a financial loss.
Grass-Fed, Pasture-Raised, and Grass-Finished
Grass-fed and pasture-raised cows and dairy products tend to be the healthiest choices because they contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. They also have healthier fat profiles overall and other healthy characteristics, thanks to a higher level of grass and phytochemicals in the animals’ diets, according to a review in Nutrition Journal.
These foods are also generally less fatty overall, Dr. Rawls says. While the argument can be made that the amount of omegas and other nutrients is negligible compared to those of foods like fish and produce — especially if you aren’t eating much meat in the first place — it’s still worth the additional cost, he says. Why?
First, it’s not necessarily the omegas and nutrients that matter — although every little bit may help. Instead, it’s more about what you’re not adding to your system via conventionally produced meat, Dr. Rawls says.
What’s more, a recent paper in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition suggests the meat and dairy from grass-fed, pasture-roaming livestock may “contain phytochemicals… [that] protect meat and dairy from protein oxidation and lipid peroxidation that cause low-grade systemic inflammation implicated in heart disease and cancer in humans.”
The paper also suggests that grass-fed livestock could play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions — of which agriculture is responsible for a quarter — if producers also incorporate other smart practices. That might include farmland restoration, managed grazing, silvopasture (the practice of intentionally combining trees, forage plants, and livestock together to create a sustainable, integrated ecosystem), and other strategies.
Keep in mind, though, that the grass-fed and pasture-raised designations don’t necessarily mean the animal spent its entire existence happily roaming a lush, green field munching grass. The terms are poorly regulated, and manufacturers using the claims may fatten up cattle with grain at the end of its life.
So, if you can find a product labeled grass-finished, which suggests the animal was indeed fed grass throughout its entire life, that’s the better bet, Dr. Rawls says. Just keep in mind that unless the label also states the meat or dairy product is organic or makes other separate claims, that grass-fed or grass-finished cow may also have been fed antibiotics or hormones.
These may be the trickiest of all to understand. Here are the key facts you should know.
1. It’s highly unlikely any food contains antibiotic residue.
Whether you buy organic or conventional products or those that only make antibiotic-free claims, you will not be consuming drug residue. If an animal is given the bacteria-fighting drugs for any reason — preventatively or for growth or to treat illness — it must be cleared from the animal’s system before slaughter or before its milk and eggs can be sold.
2. Antibiotic use/status should still concern you.
While antibiotics are used to treat sick animals — just as they are for humans — they’re also often used to promote growth or as a means to prevent the spread of infections among animals living in overcrowded, unnatural, and often inhumane conditions. “About 70% of all antibiotics are given to livestock,” Dr. Rawls says. This is troublesome because overuse and unnecessary use contribute to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that can make humans very ill.
3. Look for terms like “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever.”
These claims, along with a certified-organic designation, typically mean that the animal was never given any antibiotics throughout the course of its life — not for growth nor disease prevention. If an animal got sick and required drugs, it would be removed and its meat or products would not be sold under that designation.
Some manufacturers are now using other terms, however, such as “no medically necessary antibiotics,” which means animals are not given the antibiotics people also take regularly, like amoxicillin. Likewise, you may see “no growth-promoting antibiotics.” While that’s a step above conventional, it still means the animal may have been given antibiotics prophylactically.
Finally, bear in mind that the more general term “no antibiotics” isn’t well regulated. Indeed, it may simply be stating the obvious — that the meat or milk contains no drug residue, which it isn’t allowed to have anyway.
“No Hormones Added” or “Raised Without Hormones”
First, know that all animal products contain natural-occurring hormones — they’re found in muscle and fat tissue as well as in milk and eggs — so this term indicates that the animals have not been given any additional natural or synthetic hormones to increase milk output or speed or improve growth. The two most common hormones used in dairy production, for example, are rBGH and rBST, which increase milk production.
But, while hormones can be given to cattle in the U.S., the government prohibits the use of hormones in all poultry and pork. That means chicken, turkey, eggs, and bacon will never contain added hormones. If you see a hormone claim on poultry or pork labels, realize it’s likely a marketing tactic.
But when it comes to milk and beef, how much of a concern are these added hormones? It’s difficult to say for sure. Research has found that giving cows rBGH and rBST doesn’t increase hormone levels in milk (and the hormones are inactive in humans anyway). However, it does increase levels of what’s known as insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which has been linked to breast, prostate, and endometrial tumors, according to the American Cancer Society, although the extent of the risk is still unknown.
Research also suggests IGF-1 and cow’s milk may exacerbate acne. Adults who drink cow’s milk have been found to have slightly higher levels of IGF-1 in their bodies, but so do those who drink soy milk, indicating there may be other factors at play, such as these milks’ protein or other nutrients.
More concerning is that cows treated with the milk-boosting hormones are more prone to infections that necessitate the use of more antibiotics. And, as discussed above, while that may not affect the milk or your health directly, it could have a wider impact on the growing global problem of antibiotic resistance.
Conventional beef cattle, meanwhile, are given natural growth hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, as well as man-made versions to increase meat production. In terms of human health, research suggests these hormones may indeed make it into your system, but in low amounts.
It’s unclear whether or how much they may impact your health, although the developing systems of children and in pregnant women could be vulnerable. Because of that uncertainty, it’s worth choosing hormone-free (or organic) whenever possible, Dr. Rawls says.
Third-Party Verifications and Certifications
Because labeling can be misleading and confusing, some manufacturers go through the additional step of having third parties verify their claims.
“These third-party seals and designations are probably your best way to find out if a label truly is honest,” Dr. Rawls says. However, keep in mind that it’s usually up to you, the consumer, to research the third-party organizations to know exactly what earning a verification or certification entails.
Below are a few groups recommended as “reliable” by the EWG. Products with the following certifications generally mean antibiotics are not given except in the case of illness, no growth hormones are administered, that animals have access to the outdoors and are never in cages, and farms are subject to frequent inspections:
- American Grassfed Association
- Food Alliance Certified — Grassfed
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Certified Humane
- Global Animal Partnership
- USDA Certified Organic
Label Claims to Ignore
If you see any of the following on labels, move on. Their meanings tend to be vague or irrelevant unless accompanied by a certification by a reputable third party like one of those mentioned above.
You’ll see this term on egg labels, but all it really means is that, as stated, the egg-producing birds weren’t kept in cages; it doesn’t mean that their quality of life was necessarily better, Dr. Rawls says. They may have been packed into a warehouse with little room to move, for example. Also know that chickens and turkeys raised for meat are never allowed to be housed in cages, so on those packages, the term is pointless.
Similar to “cage-free,” this term means only that the chicken or turkey was allowed access to the outdoors, not that it actually spent time roaming. Nor does it mean the manufacturer met any requirements for what kind or size of environment the birds were given access to. And, while manufacturers have to present the USDA with documentation to make cage-free and free-range claims, no inspections are done to verify accuracy.
The government defines a natural meat product as containing no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. That’s great — except most conventionally produced meat, eggs, and dairy naturally meet those requirements without even trying.
You’re not eating the shell, and its color has no bearing on the health of what’s inside, Dr. Rawls says. Yet brown eggs often cost more than white, even when there are no other discernible differences in how they were produced.
Says who? According to the EWC, there is no legal definition or requirements for this term, nor on-site inspections required.
While you may not have realized what a minefield your grocery store’s meat, egg, and dairy departments were, educating yourself as to what you’re buying is empowering. Being in the know enables you to make the most sound, healthiest choices for you and your family.
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