Health Food Lingo 101



In 2007, the USDA issued a standard for grass (forage) fed marketing claims. The standard states that cattle must be fed only grass and/or forage the entire span of their lifetime (they are allowed to consume milk prior to weaning). Animals may not consume grains and must have access to pasture during “the growing” season.

What’s the downside? Animals may still be fed in feedlots and there is no restriction on antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Lastly, The USDA does not regulate grass-fed labeling.

What’s the benefit? Studies show that meat from cattle, raised on greens as opposed to grains, contains higher amounts of heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids (2).


Pastured or Pasture-raised

This term usually means that the animal has been raised on pasture as opposed to being confined indoors.

What’s the downside? When it comes to setting a common definition, the USDA states on their website, “Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products”. So really, pasture-raised can be interpreted a number of different ways and there is no “set” definition.

What’s the benefit? Being raised on pasture provides a much more natural and enjoyable life for the animal.



The free-range claim only applies to poultry products and means that the animal has never been confined to a cage and has had access to the outdoors.

What’s the downside? The USDA only regulates this label in terms of poultry, as the free-range claim does not pertain to eggs. Furthermore, the definition is vague at best and does not specify amount of outdoor time or space given to the animal.

What’s the benefit? Although living conditions may still be jam-packed, hens are given some access to the outdoors and are not confined to small cages.



This label refers to egg products and indicates that the hen has never been confined to a cage and is allowed to roam freely within an enclosed area.

What’s the downside? Although hens are not confined to cages, they are not necessarily given access to the outdoors and are generally confined to an enclosed, indoor space.

What’s the benefit? Although living conditions may still be tightly packed, hens are not confined to small cages.


All Natural or 100% Natural

According to the USDA, “…meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients”.

What’s the downside? When it comes to the natural claim, the USDA regulates meat, poultry and egg products only. In other words, a natural claim on a box of cereal or bread is most likely unsubstantiated. In addition, the definition outlines only the processing of meat and eggs and does not refer to farm practices in any way.

What’s the benefit? The use of added colors, artificial flavors and synthetic substances in food is controversial.Critics believe that a diet high in these ingredients is harmful.


GMO free

A genetically modified organism (GMO), also known as a genetically engineered organism (GEO), is an organism whose genes have been altered in order to enhance the growth, survivability, and/or nutritional value of the organism. Oftentimes, genetic material from one species is inserted into another to produce the desired result. GMO Free foods are completely free of genetically altered organisms.

What’s the downside? Currently, no laws have been established pertaining to the labeling of GMO foods. However, some food companies have opted for a non-GMO claim. Non-GMO claims are usually verified through a third party audit such as the Non-GMO Project.

What’s the benefit? The health indications of GMO foods have not been fully researched. Critics believe that these foods are harmful for the environment as well as the consumer.



Gluten refers to a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten-free foods avoid any ingredient derived from these grains.

What’s the downside? Going gluten-free may not necessarily be healthier for you if you do not suffer from celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Gluten-free foods sometimes contain more fat and sugar compared to their gluten-containing counterparts.

What’s the benefit? For people with Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten free diets are essential.

Article Contributed by Ashley Chehey, Certified Holistic Health Coach, health and nutrition contributor, and founder of Selah Integrative Health and Wellness. She received her B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology and her health coach training from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. After years of working in the pharmaceutical industry, where there’s a pill for everything, she is on a mission to help people discover the healing power of nutrition and a healthy life balance.


Article Sources

  2. Ponnampalam EN, Mann NJ, Sinclair AJ. Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2006;15(1):21-9.