Improve Your Grocery Store Vocabulary

We see you looking at those labels and we like it! In addition to nutrition info and ingredient lists, there's a lot of information on food packaging these days. It can be hard to know what it all means – especially when it comes to certain oft-used terms, like organic, cafe-free and vine-ripened.

Some of these terms have specific, legally-defined or industrially-accepted criteria that define them but some don't. That means what's heirloom to one grower may not be to another, and so on. This doesn't mean such words don't have merit or that they're misleading, but it does require a bit of savvy shopping to understand what labelers' claims mean to them, and ultimately, to you!

These terms have agreed-upon definitions:

  • The USDA Food Safety and Inspection service defines Organic and provides organic certification for producers that meet certain production and handling standards.
  • The USDA defines Natural as a product containing no artificial ingredients or colors that is minimally processed. The term minimally processed, however, is not well defined.
  • Grass-fed and Free-range are defined by the USDA and USDA and have specific requirements. Grass-fed animals must get 100% of their dietary requirements from grass. Free-range poultry must have outdoor access, but the amount and quality is not defined. Use of either term does not necessarily mean the animals are necessarily humanely raised, and it does not mean the animals haven't received antibiotics or hormones.
  • While not governmentally defined, Fair Trade is accepted, as it has been defined and is certified by the Fairtrade Foundation. Fair trade practices aim to address injustices in trade that fall upon poorer, weaker producers. The same is true of Animal Welfare Approved, a term defined and certified by the group Animal Welfare Approved. Certified Gluten-Free is generally accepted as defined by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization. Certified Vegan is administered by the Vegan Awareness Foundation.

These terms are unregulated or legally undefined:

  • Cage-free doesn't mean animals aren't raised in a barn or warehouse and doesn't mean they have access to the outdoors or aren't overcrowded.
  • Vine-ripened or tree-ripened may mean nothing, as partially ripe fruit is often picked before shipping to reduce damage and spoilage. So labeled fruits and vegetables may or may not be pesticide-free, organic, etc.
  • The terms Humanely Raised, RBST-free, RBGH-free, Local, Artisan, Dry-aged and Heirloom are also not legally defined or regulated terms, nor is GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms)*. While there may be generally agreed-upon parameters for use of these terms, the fact that they are not governmentally or otherwise legally defined or regulated means you should take care to understand what these words or phrases mean to the labeler (farmer, producer, manufacturer or retailer, etc.) to fully understand what they mean to you. Different labelers may define the same terms differently.

*It is not legally or scientifically possible to define a product as GMO-Free. The Non GMO Project attempts to independently verify products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance, as defined by a consensus-based standard. You can learn more at

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