Natural, Free Range, Pasture Raised, Organic. What Do All of The Food Labels Mean?

Grocery shopping can be overwhelming today with all of the food labels that claim ‘All Natural’, ‘Organic’, ‘Free Range’, ‘Grass Fed’, and ‘Pasture Raised’ to just name a few! What do all of these labels mean and don’t mean? Is there a difference between ‘All Natural’ and ‘Natural’ or between “Grass Fed’ and ‘Pasture Raised’? What does ‘Organic’ really mean? Let’s discuss all of this so it won’t be so confusing next time you are confronted with all of these food labels when you are just trying to buy healthy food!

First, let's talk about when a food label says ‘Natural’ or ‘All Natural’. According to the USDA, any food company can throw the label ‘Natural’ or ‘All Natural’ on their product as long as it does not have artificial or synthetic additives that are not usually found in the food. For example, any meats raised with antibiotic use or hormones, eggs from birds no matter how the birds are treated or what their fed, the Simply brand of Cheetos, Lays, and Doritos, and high-fructose corn syrup are all considered natural or all natural and can use that label (Houck, 2019). These are just a small number of examples of a much bigger pool of food products that can be labeled a natural product without really owning it. These terms are smart marketing by the food companies because they know that many people will choose their products over another that does not say ‘Natural’ or ‘All Natural’.

Next, let’s discuss eggs and what it means when the label says ‘Farm Fresh’, ‘Free Range’, ‘Cage Free’, ‘Organic’, or ‘Pasture Raised’. There are so many choices when buying eggs! Just like the natural labels, anyone can label their eggs with ‘Farm Fresh’, it means nothing, it is just plain old marketing. ‘Cage Free’ and ‘Free Range’ are a little different and do have some rules. In order to use the label ‘Cage Free’, the hens cannot live in a cage but oftentimes live in aviaries which are huge barns that are home to thousands of birds with little space for each bird. ‘Free Range’ means that the hens don’t live in cages AND have access to outside; however, many of the large egg manufacturers only allow the birds onto a small screened-in porch with not a lot of space. Eggs that are organic are privy to USDA regulations which include the birds being cage free, free range, and fed organic food that has no antibiotics or hormones. Finally, there are pasture raised eggs, which come from birds that spend a lot of their time outside in the pasture where they have access to grass, worms, insects, corn feed, and have shelter, like a barn (Kelto, 2014). You can find organic and pasture raised eggs in some grocery stores, as well as at food co-ops, farm stands, and farmers markets.

Finally, let’s look at meat and the various labels that you can run into while shopping. We discussed the natural and all natural labels earlier, so if a meat product has one of those labels, it doesn’t really mean much. ‘Grass Fed’ means that the animal was fed an all grass diet and this is regulated by the USDA, but it does not have anything to do with antibiotics or growth hormones, so the animal can be given these and still be grass fed certified (Lawler, 2017). Pasture Raised meat is similar and means that the animal was given access to the outdoors at least 120 days per year and this is regulated by the USDA, but similarly, it does not mean that the animal wasn’t given antibiotics or growth hormones. If you are looking for meat that was not given antibiotics or growth hormones, you will need to look for labels that say ‘Raised Without Antibiotics’ and/or ‘Raised Without Growth Hormones’. Finally, certified organic meat captures all of the above in one because this meat comes from animals that were raised on organic land with no use of fertilizers, pesticides, or genetic engineering for at least 3 years, the animals have access to the outdoors year round, they are fed organic food, never given antibiotics or growth hormones, and are raised in a manner that supports their natural behavior and health (Lawler, 2017).

Learning about all of the various labels and what they mean, can be very overwhelming and sometimes confusing! It is best to read the ingredient lists if you are purchasing a food that claims it is healthy, just to make sure you are not being fooled by the company’s marketing tactics. When purchasing eggs or meat, look for pasture raised, no growth hormones, no antibiotics, or certified organic, if you are able to afford it. Hopefully reading and learning about the different food labels and what they mean will be helpful the next time you are grocery shopping.


Houck, B. (2019, April 11). 'Natural' Means Practically Nothing When It Comes to Food. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from

Kelto, A. (2014, December 23). Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs Not Always What They're Cracked Up To Be. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from

Lawler, M. (2017, November 30). What Meat Labels Like 'Organic' and 'Grass Fed' Actually Mean-a