Food Labeling Truths Revealed

To truly know where your food comes from, you need to learn the truth behind food labeling.

| November/December 2014

  • A summer barley crop waves in the bright sunshine.
    Photo by of Stephen Laurance Strathdee
  • Organic heirloom tomatoes deliver on taste and safety.
    Photo by
  • Look for the logo of the USDA’s National Organic Program.
    Photo courtesy USDA’s National Organic Program
  • Organic pastures are essential for labeling beef as organic.
    Photo by Fotolia/catolla
  • If the term “grassfed” is used, the consumer may need to do further research as to the guidelines used by the producer for this label.
    Photo by Fotolia/Ints Vikmanis
  • Caged and crowded conditions don’t fit any of the National Organic Program’s guidelines.
    Photo by
  • While a flock kept in a mobile enclosure, or “chicken tractor,” can be sold under the label of “pasture raised.”
    Photo by
  • Free-range chickens are healthy and well-fed.
    Photo by Fotolia/Elenethewise
  • Factory-raised broiling chickens never see green grass or sunshine.
    Photo by
  • Fresh brown eggs are prized by consumers.
    Photo by
  • Eggs labeled "cage-free."
    Photo by Grit Photo Archive
  • This carton lists the amount of omega-3 in the eggs.
    Photo by Grit Photo Archive
  • Gritty takes the time to examine food labels.
    Photo by Brad Anderson

Food is a universal equalizer, required by all people from every walk of life, making it one of the most competitive commercial markets in the world. In 2012, American supermarkets brought in more than $602.6 billion in revenue. In an area of such intense competition, producers are always looking for new ways to make their products stand out. As a result, the last decade has seen an explosion of “new” food concepts, each coming with its own special label. While consumer options are growing, though, so is confusion. What exactly do all of these labels mean? How do you pick the right one for your family and your budget?

What follows is an examination of many commonly found food labels, broken down into three main categories: Produce, Meat, and Eggs/Poultry.


While agriculturalists may argue about the exact age requirement for an heirloom variety, the general consensus is that it can include any cultivar that was grown before 1951 (the year commercialized hybrids were first widely introduced on the market), is still in production today, and reproduces true-to-type year after year. These cultivars are open-pollinated, meaning they either self- or cross-pollinate with others of the same variety, and grow naturally generation-to-generation with the same characteristics as their parents. Some heirlooms are descendants of traditional Native American crops dating from pre-Columbian times. Regardless of age, heirlooms are widely known for their unique tastes, colors and textures not often copied in commercially available hybrid varieties.

Hybrid plants are produced by crossing two varieties of the same species, or in some cases, different species — typically in the same genus. Some hybridization occurs naturally and plays a role in adaptation and speciation. Seed growers make specific crosses to produce offspring with the best features of both parents. Hybrids are often labeled according to their generation, for instance F1 (a first-generation hybrid), F2 (offspring derived from F1 parents), and so on. Unlike open-pollinating heirlooms, though, hybrids typically don’t breed true-to-type. You cannot plant seed from hybrid plants and grow identical plants in the next generation. In fact, some hybrid plants are completely sterile. Others will produce offspring with the characteristics of one parent and not the other and/or a continuum of characteristics.  Hybrids have been with us for millennia, and many old commercial hybrids are still grown.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GMO plants are created in a laboratory by directly altering a plant’s cellular DNA — the genetic material. They may be altered by adding genes from other plants, animals, viruses, bacteria or completely synthetic genes to produce a plant with special traits, such as resistance to pesticides or insects. Though just introduced commercially in 1996, reports from 2011 showed that more than 80 percent of American soy, sugar beets, corn and canola are commercial GM crops. GMOs are regulated by one of three agencies: the EPA, the FDA and the USDA, according to what they are genetically modified with.

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