Decoding Food Labels in the Grocery Store

— Written By Casey Hancock and last updated by

Do the many food labels in the grocery store confuse you? Do you pause in the aisle pondering over eggs: cage-free, free-range, organic, or all natural?

Labels are intended to make life easier by allowing consumers to quickly identify what they would like to purchase, but these claims can be confusing. Many of these terms used on labels are not legally defined or regulated. An independent third party audits some of the terms, while others are simply “self-made” claims for marketing where there is no verification or audit process. Very few labels are actually legally defined and regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These labels provide a range of claims relating to farming practices or the welfare of animals. When evaluating the validity of labels, it is important to consider if it is regulated or verified.

Here are several of the most common labels you will see in a grocery store:

Cage-Free: There is no legal or regulated definition. This term is most often applied to egg-laying hens and implies the hens are not raised in cages but does not indicate whether they have access to outdoors. There is also no third-party verification.

Free-Range: The free-range label is defined by USDA and is allowed on a label if producers have demonstrated that the poultry has had access to the outside. This does not specify the type of outdoor access; length of time birds are required to have access and how this must be verified is not legally defined. There is no definition for other free-range animals.

Natural: As defined by USDA, a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed may be labeled natural. This does not regulate how the animal was raised, and there is no third-party verification.

No Antibiotics: The term “no-antibiotics added” is defined by USDA and may be used on labels for meat or poultry if sufficient documentation is provided; however, there is no verification system in place.

No Hormones Added: As defined by USDA, hormones are not allowed in raising poultry or hogs. The claim may only be added to the label if it is followed by a statement that says, “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” The term “no hormones administered” may be approved for use on the label of beef products if documentation is provided to the agency.

No-Spray/Pesticide Free: There is no regulated definition; however, “no-spray” implies that no pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals have been applied. A third party does not verify this claim.         

Organic: All products sold as organic must meet the USDA National Organic Program Production and Handling Standards. Certification is mandatory for farmers and is verified by an accredited certifying agency. Organic production limits the use of synthetic chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics.

My advice? Do your best to eat locally. If you know your farmer, you are able to build a relationship, develop a dialogue, and understand how your food is raised.

For more information, please contact Casey Hancock, Extension Community Resource Development Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 671-3276, by E-mail at, or visit our website at North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status, or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.