There are so many terms like organic, natural, locally-grown, and others. What do they mean?

Like any product, food packaging plays a huge role in purchasing decisions, but there are countless terms and many are simply used for marketing purposes because they help a product sell. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates most food labels. However, it does not regulate all labels. Manufacturers are constantly developing new labels for marketing purposes that are not always under a regulation. Understanding what each label means will help consumers make educated, healthier and environmentally friendly decisions.

USDA Regulations:

Organic: Food labeled as "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients, and the other five percent must be approved on the national list provided by the USDA. Products cannot be produced with antibiotics, supplemental growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Each organic ingredient must be identified along with the name of the certifying agency.

The USDA thoroughly regulates organic product labels, and organic food producers must submit an application for certification. This application must include the type of operation, substance history for the past three years of operation, organic products to be grown, raised and produced, and the plan for practices and substance use. Furthermore, producers must keep records for five years after certification and make all information and records available to the National Organic Program (NOP), the division of the USDA that deals with organic production. Before certification, an on-site inspection is conducted. Annual, unannounced inspections occur after certification. If a product is found that has been knowingly mislabeled, a civil penalty of up to $11,000 can be issued. All organic products approved for USDA certification are stamped with the USDA seal and the word “organic.”

100% Organic: Food labeled as "100% organic" must consist of only organic ingredients and processing aids (100 percent organically produced ingredients). The same protocols, restrictions and regulations are put in place for food labeled as "organic."

Made with Organic Ingredients: Food with this label must consist of at least 70 percent organic ingredients, and ingredients cannot be produced with sewage-sludge based products or ionizing radiation. Labeling cannot include the USDA seal or the word "organic" in any principal displays. Three of the organic ingredients can be included on the label, and all organic ingredients should be identified in the ingredients list. The same controls and regulations are put in place for food labeled as "organic."

Free Range/Cage Free: A product label that says "free range" or "cage free” means the animals are not contained in any way and are allowed to roam and forage freely over a large area of open land.

However, USDA food labeling regulation only requires that the producer be able to demonstrate that the animals are allowed access to the outside and are not contained. Applications and certification are not required.

Grass-fed: Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. The grass-fed label, regulated by the USDA, does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic.

Marketing Tactics:

“Made With…”

Consumers think: “It’s a good source of XXX (the ingredient the label is touting).”

It really means the product contains at least a bit of the ingredient. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not define this label, and the consumer is unable to know how much of the ingredient is or is not in the product.


Consumers think: “It’s not processed.”

It really means the product (probably) does not contain added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. 

“Low,” “Light,” and “Reduced”

Consumers think: “It has fewer calories, grams of fat, grams of sodium, or less of the ingredient that is labeled or is in the label list.”

It really means the product has less of the specific ingredient highlighted than the original version. For instance, according to the FDA, foods can be labeled “light” if they contain half the fat or one-third the calories of the original version. Meanwhile, manufacturers are allowed to say products are “reduced sodium” if they have 25 percent less than the original or other similar foods. 


Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated.

More marketing tactics:

USFRA Point of View

In order for agriculture to provide healthy choices for all Americans, as well as people around the world, we need all types of farms and ranches – big and small, organic and conventional, rural and urban. Only when farmers and ranchers collectively respond to the marketplace, sharing best... Read more