Have you been a little confused at the grocery store when it comes to food labels? There's organic, free range, cage free, whole grain, and more. It's complicated! To help you demystify the world of health food terms and catch phrases on your next shopping trip, here are some tips.

What is organic?

First of all, I'm a huge fan of organic food. Why? For one thing, I think it's important to support your local farming community whenever possible. I also think many organic foods taste better without chemicals and pesticides. Plus, a recent European study found that organic fruit and vegetables contain more antioxidants than conventional equivalents.

According to Webster's Dictionary, organic refers to "food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides." In the United States, anyone who wants to label their food organic must be certified and abide by a set of USDA guidelines. Those guidelines dictate how food should be produced and handled before it ends up on your plate.

Here's what the labels mean:

  • "100% organic" means that all ingredients (with the exception of water and salt) inside the product must be organic. These food products are permitted to use the brown and green USDA Organic seal.
  • "Organic" means it must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. It is permitted to use the USDA seal.
  • "Made With Organic" means it must be made from at least 70 percent organic ingredients. It is not permitted to use the USDA seal.

If a product contains less than 70 percent organic ingredients, the ingredient label can still list those items that are organic, but it will not get the USDA seal.

There are some foods that get special labels as well--let's take a look at two of the big ones.

All about eggs

I would argue that eggs are a perfect food. They're packed with protein, supply essential amino acids, contain lots of vitamins and even come in their own handy carrying case--the shell. But like the term organic, egg labels are confusing. Below are a few definitions to help you sort out the good eggs from the bad eggs.

Here's what the labels mean:

  • "Cage free" means the chickens that produced the eggs are free to roam about their housing unit, usually a barn, and lay eggs.
  •  "Free range" means that hens have access (though sometime very limited access) to the outdoors to forage and roam around. Whether the chickens actually go outdoors is another matter--that's up to them.
  • "Vegetarian-fed" means the hens have been fed an all-vegetarian diet with no animal byproducts.
  • "Omega-3 enriched" means they contain higher amounts of Omega-3s because the chickens that produced them enjoyed the highlife with diets rich in seaweed, fish oil and/or fish byproducts, or flax seed oil. (Those are some sophisticated chickens.)

Whole-grain truth

When shopping for whole-grain products, you should proceed with caution. Many breads and cereals make themselves sound healthier by promoting how much wheat or fiber they have, but what about the fat and sugar content? Items that sound like they contain whole grains may not. Watch out for labels such as "multigrain," "health nut," or "made with whole grains." Unless the package or ingredient list says "100% whole wheat" or "100% whole grain," you could be getting fooled into buying enriched bread.

Here's what the labels mean:

  • Terms like "whole grain," "stoneground whole grain," "brown rice," "oats" or "oatmeal" mean you're actually getting whole grains.
  • "Wheat," or "wheat flour," "organic flour," "stoneground," or "multigrain" can mean that some parts of the grain are missing.
  • "Enriched flour," "bran," or "wheat germ" mean you're not getting the whole grain.

Now, go forth and read labels. You'll get the hang of it in no time, and your body (and the local chickens) will thank you.


Tselani Richmond

After 12 years in marketing, Tselani Richmond shed her corporate responsibilities and headed to Paris, where she studied cuisine and pastry at Le Cordon Bleu, finishing first in both disciplines. She turned her sights on Parisian kitchens, working at Guy Savoy, a three-star Michelin restaurant, and at the famous pastry shop Pierre Herme. Tselani lives in Portland, Ore., and works as a personal chef, cooking instructor and food writer.