Food Labels and What They Mean

Kitchen Knowledge Lifestyle | Published January 2, 2022 by Mimi Council

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If you guys know me at all, then you know I'm a huge organic and sustainability advocate. And if you read the blog or follow me on social then you've also probably heard me throw out other terms like Fair Trade, Non GMO, Grass Fed, Vegan, Regenerative, and more. As we welcome a new year, you may be thinking of ways you can eat better and do better. And food provides a way for you to do both of those things. Food can fuel your body better and it can help the environment.

If you are new to the health and sustainable food space, I highly recommend that you watch the documentary Kiss the Ground. It's on Netflix, so you all should be able to do that! It dives deep into the use of GMOs, how it started, why it's still going on, and how it can be fixed to not only protect our health but also reverse climate change. It seems like such an easy fix, yet there are still many farmers out there who aren't switching to regenerative and organic farming because they are too scared to make a change, or worried about loosing subsidies from the government.

chicken sausage greek salad

The time to voice your opinions is now so we can protect our planet and our bodies. And you can do that simply by buying better food! If everyone bought better food, it will provide more demand for organic and Non GMO food, which in turn will hopefully sway more farmers to the movement. It's as simple as switching up your grocery list. And not only will it help the environment, but it will dramatically improve your health! And don't you want to live a healthy and long life, one that doesn't include cancer and sickness? I would think so! Eating organic doesn't have to be boring, dull, lackluster, or even healthy all the time. And I'll let you in on a little secret – organic foods are actually more flavorful than eating foods made using GMOs. Why? Because organic foods are more pure as they are made without additives, so you can taste the flavor that much more!

I kid you not when I say that. And that was how my organic journey started. My mom was always very healthy growing up, making sure milk was hormone free, we had fresh vegetables, fruits, and all sorts of healthy snacks. While organic was just getting started then, not every single thing in my pantry was organic as a kid. But, I was well aware of the harmful chemicals and things that could be in my food. My mom had certain brands she only bought and wouldn't ever buy what she called “the cheap stuff” as it doesn't taste good and it's not good for you, as she would say.

For me, it all started with chocolate milk. When I moved out on my own at 17 years old, I had to fend for myself and budget. There were days when I had no money for food because I spent it on weed, days when I was so thankful I worked at a restaurant as I was able to get dinner for a good price, and days when I ate oatmeal all day because I didn't budget properly. Those first couple months on my own taught me a lot about what was really important, and it made me value a good meal a lot more than I had when I lived at home as it was something I took for granted. So I got my shit together and learned how to budget properly and grocery shop regularly so that at least when I woke up hungover, I could nourish myself with something that made me feel better.

And, it all started with chocolate milk. I was constantly trying out different things when I grocery shopped, as it was just me, and I could buy whatever I wanted given I could afford it. Chocolate milk was something I didn't need, but truly wanted. I have drank milk all of my life, and chocolate milk is a treat, fuel, and has added health benefits so it's killing lots of birds with one stone. Plus, if I had nothing else for breakfast, a glass of chocolate milk went a long way. Organic Valley Chocolate Milk was on sale on day, so I bought it as I hadn't ever tried it before. It blew my mind how delicious it was compared to whatever other chocolate milk I was buying before. So, I did a test, and I bought the Horizon Chocolate Milk the next week – different tasting than Organic Valley, but still better than the regular chocolate milk. So, then I did a test with an apple. I bought a regular one and then I bought an organic one. Guess what, the organic apple tasted so much more flavorful! I was sold right then and there. I mean if I'm going to eat something, I want it to taste the best that it can, don't you?

alexandre family farm milk

I was 17 years old, so I wasn't as strictly organic as I am today. It started with grocery shopping, whatever I bought I made sure was organic. And if they didn't have something, I would usually buy the non organic version until an organic one became available. And I would still eat out at restaurants, and if people gave me food obviously I'd eat it, but I was slowly realizing that the food I made always tasted better. And, I always felt better after eating it.

Many years ago, I really started to notice that I would get really bad stomach aches after eating at restaurants, and found it was mainly because of the non organic gluten. But, if I eat organic gluten then I have no problems. So it's been many years since I haven't eaten something that isn't organic and I can't tell you how good it feels to eat food! Food should be enjoyable, and that is something my parents taught me growing up. And food should nourish you as well, otherwise, if it's not enjoyable and you're not getting nourishment, then what is the point?

So today I am diving into all the food labels and what they mean. They may be confusing for you, you may not know what to look for, what each mean, or what is most important to you. So fear food labels no more, as I got you covered right here. You can learn about food labels and what they mean, so when you're shopping those grocery store aisles you can feel empowered and educated! If I can just inspire one of you guys to make a change, it will make me so happy. So let's dive in.


I use this word pretty much every day. I have an attachment to it, as it was one of the first food labels I recognized as a way that I could eat better. One of my favorite stories of the bakery is when I first opened, I had an older woman probably in her late eighties in the shop. She kept looking at our window stickers and then at our menu, and I asked if she had a question. And she said, I don't understand what an organic cookie is? And I told here that it was the same as a regular cookie, but it was just made using organic ingredients. And she still looked puzzled, and then she said, Oh honey, but sugar is organic! And all I could do was laugh, because maybe back when she was young sugar was made in a more pure form than it is now. But, she did not seem to know what had happened to our food since.

I'll save you the food history, and let you watch Kiss the Ground instead. But, I will say that the organic label is the highest label of certification you can buy right now. And it means that 95% of the ingredients are organic. And, organic always means Non GMO, it's part of the certification to be USDA Organic. Organic also prohibits the use of antibiotics, herbicides, toxic chemicals and more. You may see other labels in conjunction with organic like Fair Trade, Gluten Free, Vegan or more. But, organic food is the best we got right now. Unless someone has an apple tree in their backyard, then that might be better! But, from a commercial farming standpoint, organic is your gold star. You can trust you are buying the best quality food you can get.

Now you may also see some labels that say “Made with 70% Organic Ingredients” or “Made with Organic Flour”. On these foods, you will not see the USDA Organic label as products are not allowed to have it if less than 95% of the ingredients are not organic. But, they can tell you which ingredients are organic. And, in order to use this labeling, all the ingredients need to be Non GMO, so you should also see the Non GMO seal on these products as well. Don't dismiss products with these labels, as large companies may be trying to do their best to switch all ingredients to organic ones, but may be having a difficult time sourcing a specific ingredient for taste reasons, and are still searching for a couple in order to fully switch over. So, these are also great products to buy and support.

rainbow fruits and veggies

Fair Trade

Fair trade certification ensures that the product was made in accordance with rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. It was designed to help producers in growing countries achieve sustainable and equitable trade relationships as well. Members of the fair trade movement add the payment of higher prices to exporters, so workers are provided a fair price for their labor. Not only are farmers getting paid fairly for their work, they are also gaining tools, training, and resources so they can succeed and thrive as international businesses in an environmentally friendly way. This is important for keeping communities going, especially in areas where farming is necessary. Fair trade works to make sure that the environment and farming communities are taken care of on a bigger level so they are there for generations after us. Fair trade also prohibits the use of GMOs, so buying fair trade is even better than buying Non GMO.

If you wonder why some fair trade products are priced higher, then rest assured, your money is going to support farmers for fair pay. Plus, you are buying something that is you know is produced in an ethical way, not to mention is Non GMO. Fair trade is something I look for, and buy whenever possible.

farm land

Non GMO Project

This is a label that you may all be familiar with these days. Non GMO Project was started to help stop the use of GMOs in food. These seals are popping up on more and more foods these days, which is great. It does cost companies money to obtain and test for certifications such as USDA Organic, and this may be a stepping stone for companies as they try to strive for a better product.

Non GMO seal means that GMO contamination has been avoided throughout the growth and harvesting of crops, their processing, storage, and packaging. If you cannot afford organic products, then Non GMO is your next best option. But, if you assume organic is just always more expensive, I urge you to actually look, do your research and compare prices. As I believe you will be surprised, that is not always the case, especially if you look for sales and shop smart! If I could do it as a 17 year old who was cut off from her parents, I urge you to simply try! Plus, Non GMO only prohibits the use of GMOs, not pesticides or chemicals that can be used throughout the farming process. So keep that mind, that Non GMO food isn't completely free of harmful things, but it is free of GMOs.

organic oranges


Regenerative is a term that is fairly new. This is the basis of the movie Kiss the Ground, and to be honest with you, I thought this word was what organic meant for years! While many organic farms are regenerative, it still has a ways to go in order to truly be able to trust that this word is properly represented on packaging because there is no government agency behind enforcement. So there are no consequences if a company uses this word, and it's false.

So, if you see it, I would do your own research on the brand. If the product is organic then I would assume they aren't messing with you, but I have also heard of brands that are neither organic or Non GMO using this word. This word can be used for anything to do with farming, and most commonly with meats and dairy.

Regenerative means that the soil is protected when farming. This means that farmers are using a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting bioseguestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil, according to Wikipedia. If that is confusing to you, think of it as traditional farming focuses on tools and strips the soil of nutrients; hence why GMOs are needed and used, as well as additives like in enriched flour. Where regenerative farming works with the earth and soil in order to keep nutrients alive, therefore not needing or requiring GMOs, additives, pesticides and more because when you work with nature it can be a powerful thing. Watch Kiss The Ground, they explain it in more detail!

Grass Fed

Grass fed is usually a term you see for beef or dairy. It means that the cows were able to roam and forage for their own food, eating mostly grass. They may be given substitutes like alfalfa during the winter. But, for the most part they are eating a natural diet. There is also health benefits to buying grass fed beef and dairy. Such as, grass fed beef and dairy have as much as five times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as regular grain fed beed or dairy! So, if you are looking for more nutrients, then opt for a grass fed option.

This is the best type of beef and dairy to buy, as if it doesn't have this label, then you are buying products from grain fed cows. And, that is especially bad if it's not organic, as there are GMOs in that grain feed. As grain fed cows are given a mostly unnatural diet that consists of corn and soy which isn't healthy for the cows, so then they are given growth hormones to beef them up before slaughter. And grain fed dairy cows are most always kept inside for their entire lives! Now, I am not vegan, but I also believe in the humane treatment of animals in the best form even if they are part of the food chain. So, grass fed is important to me because it gives cows a better life that is more enjoyable. And, it provides better quality beef and milk when it comes time to eat it, with nutrients that help benefit us instead of hurting us (like GMOs).

classic cheeseburger

A2 / A2

This might be something new that you haven't seen before. You will see this A2/A2 label on dairy products, such as milk, cream, or yogurt. So, what does A2/A2 milk mean? Alexandre Family Farm does a really good job of explaining what A2/A2 milk is. The good news is that if you are sensitive to dairy, then drinking A2/A2 milk could really help you! Why? Humans have A2 protein in their bodies, so A2 protein is most natural to the human body and therefore easily absorbed. Over time, cows developed a mutant protein called A1. This led to cows with both A1/A2 protein. This took over many cows, with some possibly having A1/A2 proteins and some with A1/A1 proteins. The A1 protein is the protein that can cause upset stomach and issues for certain people.

Alexandre Family Farm are one of the first to offer an organic A2/A2 milk product. They confirm that they have successfully bred their cows to only have A2 protein, therefore producing milk that is 100% A2/A2. And this can be better for those who have sensitive stomachs to dairy. I know a couple people personally who have had issues with dairy, switched to A2/A2 and now have milk or cream daily! So, this is something to look for and try if you have a dairy sensitivity.

Alternatively, if you are not on the west coast as I believe that is mostly where Alexandre Family Farm is distributed since they are in California, then I highly recommend buying Organic Valley Grassmilk. I have many connections at Organic Valley, and they have been breeding cows and farming the right way since the beginning. The majority of their cows are A2/A2 cows, and the ones that produce the Grassmilk will provide the best dairy for ones with sensitive stomachs, plus you're getting even more nutrients! Organic Valley is just so small, and they work with many small family farms, that having another certification is too much for them to handle at this point for processing milk efficiently.

Cage Free

Cage Free is a term mostly used for eggs. Cage free eggs are also sometimes brown, just like organic eggs, so I feel that can confuse people. But cage free does not mean organic, and it does not mean Non GMO. Cage free is a term just like Regenerative where there are no USDA or FDA regulations on it, yet companies use it on their packaging. Cage free means that the chickens are not kept in cages, and they are free to move about the egg production barn. So, while yes, this is better than conventional eggs where the chickens are kept in cages. The certification does not specify how many chickens per barn, so they can ultimately not even have much space at all. And they do not get to go outside still! That is where cage free can become a tricky term. It draws you in as you think you're doing something better when you see this, and the eggs are brown, so they must be better you think. Yet, they're not that much better. This is a food label that I feel like could be better with the proper certifications to use it.

farm eggs

Free Range

Free Range is another term that is used a lot to describe eggs. However, this term is regulated by the Certified Humane’s Free Range standard–one of the strictest animal welfare standards available (according to Nellie's Free Range Eggs). These eggs are also usually brown, but this term does not mean that eggs are or organic or Non GMO. So, you still need to look for those labels as well. According to Pete & Gerry's, as long as free range is certified by a credible third party like Certified Humane, then free range is almost as good as pasture raised. Free range means the hens have the option to roam free, and be outside. How much space depends on the farmer, which is why certifications are important here. And as Pete & Gerry's say, sometimes the hens prefer to be in the shade or inside, and that's okay too as long as they have the choice and can easily access the outdoors when they choose. So, make sure to choose Organic Free Range Eggs whenever possible, and if you are buying a certain brand, get to know their standards so you can feel comfortable buying from them.

Pasture Raised

Pasture raised eggs are the best you can buy right now. So, if you are looking to eat eggs that treat the chickens with respect and dignity as far as being free to roam, graze, and go outside when they want, and spend majority of their time outside, then these are the eggs you should be buying. This is similar to free range, but the hens have even more space per hen than with free range. That can also be reflected in the price of the eggs, as space costs money. But, I also believe that when chickens are free to roam that they can produce a better tasting egg as they are happy. If you are looking to buy the best eggs for yourself and for the chickens, then Organic Pasture Raised Eggs are what you want to buy.

You can be sure that any other eggs with these words Organic Pasture Raised Eggs are sure to be held to the same standards – No GMOs, chickens spend majority of time outside, are free to roam and graze outside, and have the happiest lives. So, think about all of this the next time you reach for conventional eggs. If you're paying more, think about where that money is going. It's going to a farmer who is actually caring for a chicken, nurturing it, only giving it antibiotics if it has an infection (just like you or me could get), and letting it have a life and do great work by laying amazing eggs. By supporting conventional egg farmers, you're encouraging them to continue “farming” chickens that never even get to go outside, let alone live a healthy and happy life.

What food labels mean. How to read food labels. How to eat healthier by reading food labels. What does organic mean. What does fair trade mean. What does regenerative mean. What does non gmo mean. What does free range mean. What does cage free mean. What does grass fed mean. What does regenerative farming mean. What is the best diet to follow. How to eat better.


Raw is a term used to describe a way of eating, not necessarily a specific food. Some people follow a raw diet and some companies make raw dairy products. Raw dairy products mean that the milk is raw, and not pasteurized. What does pasteurized mean? Pasteurized means that milk is heated to a temperature that kills off pathogens, makes it safe to drink, and also extends its shelf life. All regular milk is pasteurized. You may see “Ultra-pasteurized” labels on food like heavy whipping cream, and that just means it has an even longer shelf life than the regular one. It doesn't mean it's better or worse, just that it will last longer. So, raw dairy is not pasteurized at all. And yes, it is still safe to eat. But, it definitely will not last as long either! One brand I really like is Raw Farm by Organic Pastures. And some people believe that raw milk has more health benefits or it's easier on your stomach because it is not pasteurized. According to Raw Farm by Organic Pastures:


I've tried many of their products and they are all really good! I will say that I prefer regular pasteurized butter as opposed to the raw butter, as I find the raw has a little bit of a sour taste to it. But, the raw milk and raw cream are insanely good! Raw is a type of food, and it doesn't mean it's Organic, Non GMO, or anything else. So, you still need to look for those seals. And, if you're wondering if you can bake with raw dairy, you absolutely can!

Gluten Free

Gluten free is a term used to describe something that is free of gluten, or wheat. If a product has a “Certified Gluten Free” seal, then it means it contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This is the requirement from the US Food and Drug Administration for products to be labeled as such. Some products may be naturally gluten free, but you may not see that “Certified GF” label on the front, and their ingredient label may say something like “Processed in a facility that also processes WHEAT”. If a product isn't made in a dedicated gluten free facility, then they need to have that disclaimer on the back.

Now, usually these naturally gluten free products are safe to eat if you are practicing a gluten free lifestyle. But, if you have a very severe allergy, then I would consult your doctor on eating products processed in facilities that also process wheat. But, if you are newly gluten free or simply trying to eat less gluten, just because you don't see that “Certified GF” on the front, doesn't mean it's not actually gluten free. Products do not have to label themselves as gluten free either. While many are doing it for ease for the shopper, it's still always best to check ingredients! Just because it is labeled Gluten Free though doesn't mean that it's Organic, Non GMO or anything else, so those other certifications also apply here!


Vegan means that no animal products were used to make the product. If a product has a “Certified Vegan” label on it, then that means it must not contain meat, fish, fowl, animal by-products, eggs or egg products, milk or milk products, honey or honey bee products, insects or products from insects such as silk or dyes, or sugar filtered with bone char or be processed with any animal products or by-products (according to But, just like gluten free – a product can be vegan without labeling it as well. So, read ingredients if you are unsure.

And if you are vegetarian, then you can also eat anything that is vegan. If you are dairy free, then you can also eat anything that's vegan. And if you eat anything – guess what, you can also eat anything that's vegan! Don't let the vegan word scare you off. There are so many amazing vegan products out there, and I urge you to give them a try. Plant based and vegan food can be very good for your health and the environment. Just because it is labeled vegan though doesn't mean that it's Organic, Non GMO or anything else, so those other certifications also apply here!


Paleo is a diet or lifestyle that avoids lots of foods! The name comes from it being based off what caveman would eat during the Paleolithic era. There are a lot of rules to Paleo, so it's something worth researching if you are interested in it. I enjoy eating paleo sometimes, but I love carbs and sugar too much to give them up completely. If you see a food labeled as Paleo or Paleo Friendly, then it is basically gluten free, grain free, and probably a little more, depending on what it is. Paleo is strict on gluten, grains, sugar, peanut butter, and more. Some foods will have Paleo labels now, but it does not have to be labeled either. So, always check ingredients. According to Paleo Foundation, The Paleo Friendly™ label was developed and trademarked by The Paleo Foundation to identify food products that meet the standards of the paleo diet. Producers may display the Paleo Friendly™ label only on products that have been certified by The Paleo Foundation. While Paleo does mean gluten free, it does not mean vegan, organic, Non GMO, Fair Trade or anything else. So, if you are looking to eat better quality food, or environmentally friendly food, Paleo is a diet just like gluten free or vegan. Still be sure to look for Organic and Non GMO labels if you are following a Paleo lifestyle.


Man, I feel like I don't know a ton here on the new trend of Keto. But, there are also foods being labeled as such these days! Keto is the shortened term for the Ketogenic Diet. This is just a diet or lifestyle like Paleo, Gluten Free, Vegan, and it has to do with the types of food you eat. According to Keto Certified, there are strict lists of what is allowed and not allowed to certify a food for Keto Certified. If you are interested in this lifestyle, do your research and make sure to get familiar with food labels. And, you will still have to look for important food labels such as Organic, Non GMO, and Fair Trade if you want to eat better for you food!

waffles with a carton of milk on counter

Last, I want to provide you guys with some trusted brands that are part of my kitchen. These brands are ones I purchase in my personal life, and I am happy to share and promote them as I truly love their products. Get familiar with the names, and look for them the next time you go shopping! And there are also many more amazing organic brands out there that I support as well, I couldn't list everything. And if you have a favorite, I'd love if you shared it with me. I am always looking for new organic brands to try and support!

Organic Valley
Alexandre Family Farm
Humboldt Creamery
Straus Family Creamery
Horizon Organic
Raw Farm by Organic Pastures

Non Dairy Milks
So Delicious (make sure to look for the organic options)

Organic Valley
Raw Farm by Organic Pastures

Organic Valley
Organic Prairie
True Story
Grass Roots

Dave's Killer Bread
Rudi's Organic Bakery
Orowheat (make sure to look for the organic options)

Cairnspring Mills
King Arthur (be sure to look for the organic options)
Bob's Redmill

Florida Crystals
Woodstock Foods

Cereal & Breakfast
Cascadian Farm Organic
Nature's Path Organic

Ice Cream
Straus Family Creamery
Alec's Ice Cream
Alden's Organic Ice Cream
Cosmic Bliss (vegan and grass fed dairy options)

Theo Chocolate
Lake Champlain Chocolates (make sure to look for the organic options)
Moo Chocolates (make sure to look for the organic options)

Annie's (make sure to look for the organic options)
Late July
Newmans' Own (make sure to look for the organic options)
Luke's Organic

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butter college hoodie in mustard

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