Reading Food Labels-Decoding Food Labels

Find out what the terms organic, natural, sustainable... really mean.

Baffled by all of the claims on food labels? To help you decode the mumbo jumbo, here’s the verbiage you need to know before you track off to your local farm—or grocery store, for that matter. This guide will help you read food labels.

Organic  The term organic relates to a lot more than your apple being free of pesticides. There is a much bigger picture to it. A true organic farmer takes a holistic approach to all aspects of farming, from raising his crops and agriculture to taking care of his land. They use only natural fertilizers and employ crop rotation to allow for rest and restoration of nutrients to the soil. No chemicals are used to kill weeds (some are still hand pulled) or insects. When in comes to controlling the insects naturally, a couple of possible options include integrated pest control (which is introducing a balance of insects that feed off ones that are harmful to crops) and growing crops together in a way to ward off pesky insects. No gamma rays are used to zap the produce (irradiation), and there’s been no genetic modification. Animals are fed organically grown feed with access to the outdoors with no sewage sludge and are antibiotic and hormone free. With a greater demand for organic produce (and a high price for us to pay for what should simply be called “food”), a new federal government regulation in Canada became necessary to protect the population. Look for the new Canadian Label “Biologigue Canada Organic” this coming December on products labelled “organic.” This guarantees it is certified to the Canadian Organic Production Standard, which means that’s it’s at least 95 percent free of pesticides and meets all of the above criteria.
Still confused about organic labels? For more info, visit Canadian Organic Growers at

NATURAL  The term “natural” sits between organic and conventional. It refers to processing only. While it does not mean that meat or poultry was organically raised, the food will have no artificial ingredients or added colours, it will not be fortified with vitamins and there will be minimal processing.

SUSTAINABLE  Sustainable agriculture refers to growing crops in a way that does no harm to the land (meaning resting, restoring and replenishing) or animals. The emphasis here is to maintain the ecological balance of the farmland for both present and future use, be humane to animals and enhance the quality of life for farmers and farming communities. Sustainable foods are not all organic. Many small family farms find it too expensive and time consuming to get organic certification. Ideally, though, it’s best to seek out foods with the certification labels of “Organic” and "Fair Trade." The latter certifies that farmers in developing countries have received a fair price for products that are grown in a sustainable way.

FREE RANGE  Chickens that are granted access to the outdoors and not to cages are called “free range.” However, regulations only requires limited outdoor time; conditions can be crowded and unclean, plus there’s no outside monitoring.

SALMON  Salmon labelling is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which has no standards for "organic." Salmon does not have to be labelled "farm-raised." Stores that carry wild salmon, however, tend to label it as such, since the fish commands premium pricing. For more info visit  This is a Canadian online guide to ocean friendly seafood, including threatened fish and shellfish speicies to help you to make sustainable seafood choices.

ANTIBIOTIC-FREE  The term "antibiotic-free" does not mean the animal wasn’t ever treated with antibiotics; merely that at the time of processing the tests revealed no antibiotic residue. This is unregulated but producers can label foods "no antibiotics administered" or "raised without antibiotics" (which means animals were raised entirely without the substances???). There are rising concerns with antibiotic use in cattle, which has been linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, threatening our own health.

HORMONE-FREE  Beef may carry a "no hormones administered" label (when it comes to the raising of pigs and chickens, these substances are banned) but no outside authority currently certifies this claim (check the Canadian government’s new regulations as of 12/ 08). Controversy has arisen over the artificial hormone rBGH, which basically is a way for dairy farmers to squeeze out more milk per cow. The U.S. is one of the few countries to approve its use; Canada amongst others has banned it because of concerns over human and animal health.

GRASS-FED  Cattle raised largely on grass and hay are referred to as "grass-fed." No government regulations or inspections apply to the term and these cattle may not be organic. Since cows digest grass better than grain, it is a more natural, humane and antibiotic-free way to raise cattle. In colder climates, though, the season for grass-fed animals peeks during the summer and fall months. The animals should feed on grass/hay for about four months to receive the optimal health benefits from this change over in nutrition. Also, grass-fed cows obtain more essential Omega 3 fats though this type of feed than from grain feed.

In two years you will be a completely new person, new cells, muscles, tissues, etc…..Eating clean can have a great impact on the health of your future-- YOU!

By Mary Robertson, RHN, RNCP Registered Nutrition Consultant, Lifestyle Educator and Health writer