Appealing-sounding terms used to describe food often don’t actually indicate anything about its nutritional value or its standard of production, while other terms are heavily regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Become a savvier shopper at the grocery store by understanding these commonly used terms.

Free-Range

The USDA doesn’t have a precise definition of what lifestyle qualifies as “free range” for animals beyond poultry—usually chickens—having access to the outdoors for part of the day. Because of its loose definition, the USDA grants use of the term on a case-by-case basis. If a meat product—chicken, for example—is labeled “organic,” it must also qualify as “free range;” however, not all free-range chickens qualify as organic.

Farm-Raised or Local

When “farm-raised” describes something on a menu, it usually refers to meat from an animal raised on a local farm. However, this usage, along with the term “local,” can have a variety of nuances and is not bestowed by any government food agency. In other words, there is no set parameter of how close a farm must be to a super market or restaurant to be considered “local.”

Farm-raised fish are raised in controlled pens inside lakes, rivers, or oceans or inside large tanks. They are fed a mixture of corn, grains, fish oil, ground up wild-caught fish, and sometimes food coloring that some feel impacts the taste. They are less likely to be exposed to mercury and can be richer in omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and farm-raised fish help combat overfishing in the oceans.

Wild-Caught

“Wild-caught” refers to fish caught in their natural habitats. Benefits include their diverse, natural diet, which can affect taste, and the absence of antibiotics, because wild fish don’t face the same risk of disease or infection as commercially farmed fish do.

Natural

Under USDA and FDA regulations, a “natural” product contains no artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives and is minimally processed. This term does not address food production methods, like use of pesticides, or processing or manufacturing methods, like pasteurization or irradiation. Neither does it indicate nutritional or health benefit.

Organic

The criteria for qualifying for a USDA organic seal is very specific. Organic meats, eggs, and dairy products must come from animals that have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones; organic plant foods must be produced without conventional pesticides, fertilizers containing synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. There are also standards for organic handling and processing.

Here’s what the three organic labels mean:

  • 100-Percent Organic: Product is completely organic or made of only organic ingredients
  • Organic: Product contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: Product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients

Whole

There is no regulatory definition for foods using “whole” as part of their name or description. It is primarily used to describe food that has not been processed, refined, or treated with added ingredients—foods like fresh produce, dairy, and grains.

Processed and Unprocessed

Both of these terms encompass a range of foods. Under USDA guidelines, a “processed” food has undergone a “change of character,” including something as simple as roasting nuts or coffee beans as well as the more involved process of pureeing and jarring tomato sauce. “Processed” does not necessarily denote a food that is unhealthy or full of additives.

Fair Trade

“Fair trade” is a globally recognize definition—often imparted by the World Fair Trade Organization or European Fair Trade Association—given to products and organizations that, through supporting production with safe working conditions and reasonable wages, combat poverty, climate change, and gender inequality in business.

Non-GMO

“GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism.” It is used to describe plants, animals, and microorganisms that have had their genetic material (DNA) altered through genetic engineering. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) work together to regulate most GMOs, ensuring they are safe for human, plant, and animal health. The agencies also monitor the impact of GMOs on the environment.

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