Fresh Perspectives: Demystifying Food Labels

The virtues of shopping at the farmers’ market are bountiful. Local food is more flavorful, nutritious, and diverse than anything we can find at the supermarket. In addition, by keeping our food dollars close to home, we are supporting the viability of local farms and the livelihood of our local farmers, contributing to the vitality of our regional economy and reducing the amount of fossil fuels required to get food from farm to table.

However, with the ever-increasing number of options we have when choosing where to shop and what to purchase comes growing confusion about how what we eat is produced. To help clarify, we have prepared this glossary of terms to help demystify the food certifications and labels you might encounter when shopping for food, whether at the farmers’ market or supermarket.

usdaorgCertified Organic (crops):

A farm must be chemical-free for three years, meaning no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or chemical herbicides can be used. Most synthetic (and petroleum-derived) pesticides and fertilizers, genetically engineered crops and sewage sludge are prohibited for use in organic production. Organic farm fields must have buffer zones to prevent contamination from adjoining lands. Harvested crops cannot be treated with irradiation or stored in bins that have been treated with synthetic fungicides or fumigants, and crops cannot be processed with chemical solvents.

Certified Organic (livestock):

Organic animals must eat organic feed that does not contain animal slaughter byproducts, manure, plastic pellets or synthetic growth hormones. Organic animals cannot be administered antibiotics. Organic animals must have access to the outdoors when conditions permit, and ruminants (cows, goats, sheep) must be on pasture during the grazing season. Animals must be slaughtered using a certified organic processor. Organic ruminants’ diets must contain at least 30 percent from certified organic pasture. The rest of its diet must also be certified organic, but can include grain, hay, and other agricultural products. Because enforcement of organic standards of meat production is inconsistent, and the interpretation of “access” to the outdoors can vary widely (particularly when it comes to poultry and pork production), it is always best to ask your farmer about their standards.

cngCertified Naturally Grown:

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) products are certified by an independent nonprofit organization (not USDA) as having been produced in approximate accordance with national organic standards, a program involving fewer paperwork requirements and lower certification fees for farmers than the USDA’s National Organic Program.


Biodynamic farming is based on the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In addition to organic practices such as crop rotation and composting, biodynamic farmers rely on special plant, animal, and mineral preparations and the rhythmic influences of the sun, moon, planets, and stars.




Refers to standard agricultural practices that are wide-spread in the industry. Can (but does not necessarily) include use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, “mono-cropping,” antibiotics, hormones and other chemical approaches. Conventional farming in the U.S. may also include the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs):

GMOs are plants and animals whose genetic make-up has been altered to exhibit traits that they would not normally have, like longer shelf-life, different color, or resistance to certain chemicals. In general, genes are taken from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism. Genetic modification is currently allowed in conventional farming.


Heirloom crops have been developed by farmers through decades of cultivation, selection, and seed saving, and passed down through generations. Generally speaking, heirlooms are varieties that have been in existence for a minimum of fifty years. These plants have never been hybridized (bred for specific qualities) by humans, a process that reduces biodiversity and results in fewer varieties of produce on the market. They often have beautiful and unusual colors, shapes or patterns, like striped tomatoes, purple cauliflower or blue potatoes.

ipmIntegrated Pest Management (IPM):

A pest management strategy that aims to reduce the use of chemical pesticides through careful monitoring for actual pest threats. Pesticides are applied in such a way that they pose the least possible hazard, and are used as a ‘last resort’ when other controls are inadequate.


Free-range, free-roaming, and pastured imply that a product comes from an animal that was raised unconfined and free to roam. “Free-range” claims on beef and eggs are unregulated, but USDA requires that poultry have access to the outdoors for an undetermined period each day. Whether they were actually outside, or for how long, is not regulated. When in doubt, ask the farmer how things are done. Free range livestock, not poultry, generally roam freely outdoors.


The diet of grass-fed animals consists of freshly grazed pasture during the growing season and stored grasses (hay or grass silage) during the winter months or drought conditions. Grass-fed animals eat what cattle they evolved to eat: grass. They are allowed to graze naturally, and the meat can be up to six times higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised beef. Grass feeding is used with cattle, sheep, goats, and bison.

(Sources: The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service & Megan Hill’s No Nonsense Guide to Food Labels at Farmers’ Markets)


askYourFarmerStill Confused? Ask Your Farmer

Keep in mind that one of the best parts about eating local is that you have the opportunity to get to know your farmer, the very person that grew the food that is nourishing you and your family. So, don’t be shy about asking farmers about their growing practices. Food labels and certifications provide you with valuable information, but cannot replace conversations between growers and eaters. You never know, you might learn something and even make a friend in the process.

by Rebecca and Brian Weiland