Figuring out food labels can be frustrating! Food stores have become more and more of a maze that needs careful navigation.

My husband makes jokes about going to the market with me:

‘Bring your glasses and your library card, because you are going to be doing a lot of reading!’

The truth is, we as consumers need to read packaging today. We need to be aware of how to translate food packaging terms so we can stay healthy.


Organic Foods

The USDA defines organic as:

‘A labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.’

USDA Organic

Take note of the last phrase in that definition: ‘genetic engineering may not be used’. So, if you want a guarantee that you are not feeding your family GMO foods, it’s wise to go organic.


There are a few different ‘levels’ of labeling when it comes to organic food. Look for the following labels:

‘100% Organic’

This food label indicates that all ingredients in the food are organic. The USDA organic logo is permissible anywhere on these food packages.

100% Organic


When you encounter this food label, it means that at least 95% of the ingredients listed are organic. The USDA organic label is also allowed anywhere on these food packages.


Both the ‘Organic’ and the ‘100% Organic’ food labels have laws regulated by the USDA. If you see either of the above two food labels on packaging, you can can be sure that what you are buying is at least 95% organic.


Now let’s take a look at a few other food label terms to see what the USDA regulations state.


‘Made with Organic Ingredients’

This food label indicates that the food is with made with 70 – 94% organic ingredients. The USDA organic logo is not permitted on these foods. In fact, any packaged food with less than 95% organic ingredients is not allowed to display the USDA organic label.
Certified Organic

‘Non-GMO Verified’

‘Non-GMO Verified’ is a label created a non-profit organization called the Non-GMO Project. The ‘Who We Are’ page of their web site states:

‘The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building the non-GMO food supply, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices. We believe that everyone deserves an informed choice about whether or not to consume genetically modified organisms.

The Non-GMO Project is governed by a Board of Directors. We also work with a collaborative network of technical and communications advisers from all backgrounds and sector’

Food products bearing this seal go through a verification process. Their verification process is quite stringent. Take a look at the Non-GMO Project’s provisions as stated on their web site.

‘We require ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients—any ingredient being grown commercially in GMO form must be tested prior to use in a verified product.

We use an Action Threshold of 0.9%. This is in alignment with laws in the European Union (where any product containing more than 0.9% GMO must be labeled). Absence of all GMOs is the target for all Non-GMO Project Standard compliant products. Continuous improvement practices toward achieving this goal must be part of the Participant’s quality management systems.

After the test, we require rigorous traceability and segregation practices to be followed in order to ensure ingredient integrity through to the finished product.

For low-risk ingredients, we conduct a thorough review of ingredient specification sheets to determine absence of GMO risk.

Verification is maintained through an annual audit, along with onsite inspections for high-risk products.’

All said, food products bearing this are not guaranteed to be GMO-free. The Non-GMO Project states:

‘Unfortunately, “GMO free” and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology.’

This organization works hard to educate and protect us, as consumers. The information they provide is honest, fact-based information.


This food label indicates that meat, poultry and egg products must be ‘minimally processed’ (whatever that means…) and contain no artificial ingredients. The ‘natural’ label does include standards in farm practices the way the ‘organic’ label does.


That said there are no USDA regulations for food products that do not contain meat, eggs or poultry. So if you see ‘all natural’ on your favorite cereal box, it could very well be a marketing term.
100% Natural


This ‘Cage Free’ label appears on chicken and egg packaging.
‘Cage-free’ means:
•that the flock lives without cages and was able to roam freely within a room
• has unlimited access to food and water during the life cycle

This label does not state that the flock must roam outdoors; these birds may never see sunlight. This label also doe not control what the flock feeding practices.
cage free hens

‘Free Range’ or ‘Free Roaming’

According to the USDA’ Food Safety and Inspection Service glossary of terms,

‘Free range or ‘free roaming’ means that:

‘Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.’

free range chickens

Final Thoughts

It’s important for your own health and the health of your family to know where your food is coming from. Ask yourself these questions:


•Who is raising your food and how your food?


• How is your food nourished?


As food buyers, The puzzle of food labeling can be difficult to put together. It does give us valuable information once we learn what the terms actually mean.


Quick Take Aways

•Shop for organics if you want a no GMO guarantee.


•The ‘100 Organic’ labels means exactly what it says.


•’Organic’ on a label means that at least 95% of the ingredients must be organic.


•’Made with organic ingredients’ means that the food has 74 – 94% organic ingredients and may not use the USDA organic seal.


•Look for the Non-GMO Project’s seal when shopping for conventional products.


•The ‘natural’ label includes regulations for farm practices like the organic label does. There are no laws regulating the use of the label on packaged foods.


•The ‘Cage Free’ label means that poultry has unlimited access to food and water in an open room.


•’Free range’ or ‘free roaming’ means that poultry must have access to the outdoors.