Food shopping can be confusing, but learning the language doesn't have to be an exercise in frustration. This glossary identifies marketing jargon and lists common terms you’ll find on everyday food labels so you can get to the bottom of what you’re buying and eating.
A few of the terms listed here are regulated lawfully by government agencies. Others are certified by a third-party organization that upholds a single set of widely used, but not legally binding, standards. But most of the terms aren't held to specific standards and even have varying meanings. When in doubt, ask your co-op staff about how your food was produced, or talk directly to the producers at your farmers’ market to find out more about their methods.
Generally, these terms mean that the product was made by hand with great care and high-quality ingredients. They are most frequently applied to items like bread, chocolate, cheese, vinegars and jam
Based on the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, this method of farming is rooted in a holistic understanding of nature. It involves treating the farm and the soil as living organisms that need to be nourished and replenished, as well as used for their resources.
Cage-free birds live in large houses in flocks of several thousand. While they might never go outside, they are able to walk around, spread their wings, and lay eggs in nests. There is no regulated definition of this term.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and Agriculture Marketing Service evaluate meat products for class, grade, and other quality characteristics. Their findings are then represented on food labels as “Certified,” such as “Certified Angus Beef.” The word “Certified” can also mean a product meets standards defined by a third-party, nongovernmental organization or trade group. In such cases, the USDA requires that the word “Certified” be printed in close proximity to the name of the certifying organization or standard, such as “Fair Trade Certified.”
Products that are created via standard practices accepted by the agriculture industry are often called “conventional.” This isn’t an official term, but it implies that the product did not undergo any special production or certification processes, which means it may include pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified traits. It may also have been produced with agribusiness practices like use of synthetic fertilizers and monoculture cultivation (in which land is used exclusively for the constant cultivation of a single crop—a practice that leaves soil depleted of nutrients and often requires synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and/or genetically modified crops for continued use).
A market-based approach to reducing poverty and empowering farmers in developing countries by encouraging fair wages and labor conditions and promoting environmental sustainability. TransFair USA is the only third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States, which carry the official “Fair Trade Certified” label.
The American Cheese Society classifies a cheese as “farmstead” if it is made with milk from the producer’s herd or flock and crafted on the farm where the animals are raised.
This term, gaining in popularity, indicates the interconnected nature of a local food system. In the same way a rivershed is comprised of diverse, interdependent plant and animal species, a foodshed is made up of local and regional food producers, their customers, and the retailers (food co-ops, farmers’ markets, and independent grocers) that carry their products, creating an integrated local economy.
The USDA definition of this term applies only to poultry meat (not eggs) and suggests that animals were raised in an unconfined environment. However, the USDA’s requirement that chickens “must be allowed access to the outside” is somewhat vague and does not include any minimum amount of time for outdoor access. “Free-range” labels on beef, pork, and eggs are not regulated.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
To make crops more suitable for industrial farming, many seed companies modify their genetic makeup by implanting traits from other organisms (often across species). The resulting crops offer more durability, volume, and other desirable traits, but there is concern over their safety, both for humans and the environment.
Indicates the absence of gluten, which is composed of two proteins that naturally occur in some grains, including wheat, spelt, and rye, and products derived from these grains. The term is not regulated in the US; products are labeled gluten-free voluntarily by manufacturers to assist people with sensitivities or allergies to gluten.
Cattle, sheep, goats, and bison termed “grass-fed” graze on pasture during the growing season and eat a diet of dry grasses (hay or grass silage) during the winter months and in droughts.
An animal is considered “finished” when its natural growth has slowed enough for it to start putting on fat; this is the stage at which animals are slaughtered for meat. Grass-finished animals continue eating grass until they reach this stage, while most meat animals spend the last several months of their lives in feedlots, eating grain.
Heirloom, or heritage, species are seeds and livestock breeds that have been cultivated over generations. There is no official definition, but it is widely agreed that seeds are naturally pollinated, and a strict interpretation of the term requires that the species be at least fifty years old and not commercially cultivated on an industrial scale.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
A sweetener derived from corn, commonly found in myriad consumer goods in the United States, including soft drinks, yogurt, salad dressing, and soup.
Humane treatment of animals does not have a legal definition. However, the Certified Humane Raised and Handled program’s “Certified Humane” label indicates that the meat comes from animals that were able to engage in natural behavior, given ample space, and provided clean water and a healthy diet free of antibiotics and hormones.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
A method of pest management intended to cause the least possible harm to the environment by using pesticides only when other, more natural methods have failed. In such cases, pesticides are applied only in a manner determined to have the least possible negative impact.
There is no official rule about what constitutes local food, but the widely accepted idea is that local food was grown or produced within a 100-mile radius of where it’s sold and eaten. In some instances, however, food originating from within one’s region or even one’s state is considered “local,” depending on the scope of available foods and the location.
This term is defined by the USDA only for meat products, which should be only minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or added colors. As defined, the term is broad enough to cover most meats. The label may be added to products at the meat manufacturer’s discretion—the USDA does not investigate every claim. On produce and packaged food labels, “natural” is a marketing term, suggesting that the product was created without the use of artificial ingredients. Because the term is not regulated or verified by a third-party certifier for non-meat products, however, shoppers should be wary of the claim.
Industrial meat companies often add antibiotics to animals’ food to prevent disease caused by cramped and unsanitary conditions, a practice that is raising concern about the emergence of antibiotic-resistant illnesses in people. The USDA allows the label “no antibiotics added” or “raised without antibiotics” on meat or poultry products. However, the use of these terms is not verified by third party certifiers and is largely based on information given by the producers themselves, thus reducing the strength of such labels. The term "antibiotic free" is not defined or approved by the USDA.
Industrial meat companies use hormones to promote growth and milk production in cattle. The USDA regulates the label “no hormones administered” on beef, and federal law does not allow hormones in raising hogs and poultry.
Crops and animals raised organically have not been exposed to synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, genetic modification, growth hormones, or antibiotics. All products labeled “Certified Organic” have been certified by the USDA. However, some farmers classify themselves as “uncertified organic,” meaning they follow organic practices but have not gone through the official process to be certified by the USDA.
Pasteurization is the process of heating foods to kill pathogenetic bacteria. The USDA regulates the use of this word in food labeling and in some cases may require certain foods to be pasteurized. Homogenization, when it refers to milk, is a mechanical process that breaks down the fat globules so that they are uniform in size and distributed evenly throughout the milk. Some milks are pasteurized, but not homogenized—that’s why they have a “plug” of cream at the top.
Labels of “pesticide-free” and “no spraying” indicate that the crops were grown on a farm that is not necessarily organic, but does not apply toxic sprays to produce.
Cow's milk that is not processed or pasteurized before being bottled for consumption. Sale of raw milk is illegal in many U.S. states, and cheese made from this type of milk must be aged as a safety precaution. Proponents claim that raw milk has remarkable health benefits.
This term has no standard definition, but it is generally used to describe food production that does not deplete nonrenewable resources (like petroleum) and is mindful of the well-being of animals, workers, the environment, and the local community. Sustainable agriculture aims to leave the land in the same or better condition than it was found, encouraging a mutually beneficial relationship between the land and its occupants.
Products labeled “vegan” do not contain any animal products, including meat, dairy, and animal byproducts.
Fruit that has been allowed to ripen on the vine or tree instead of being plucked early to “ripen” via treatment with ethylene gas during long-distance shipments to retail locations.