Decoding Shelf Phrases

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition
on April 20, 2012

"Fair Trade": Fair trade goods, such as coffee, are regulated by Fair Trade USA.  The non-profit describes these items as “fair.”  “From far-away farms to your shopping cart, products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated.” –according to

"Free Range": In the United States, the term “free range” only applies to poultry.  In order for a product to be labeled as “Free Range,” animals cannot be contained in any manner.  However, the USDA does not regulate the size of the outdoor space or require a specific amount of time allowed outdoors. –according to

"Fresh":  Fresh food can be found in the produce section or the freezer section.  A product that is labeled as “fresh” has not been heated, cooked or “more than minimally processed.” –according to

"Gluten-Free": The FDA has developed a working definition of “gluten-free” to include any items that do not contain any type of wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of these grains. 

"GMOs": Genetically modified organisms (GMO) or genetically engineered organisms (GEO) are products in which the DNA has been altered to produce a greater yield. According to The Learning Channel, the most commonly genetically modified foods are tomatoes, papaya, rice, potatoes, corn, soy and milk. 

"Grass-fed": According to the USDA, “grass-fed” animals must have “continuous access to pastures” and cannot be fed any grain-based products.  The meat from grass-fed animals is lower in saturated fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and vitamin E. According to Time, “Grass-fed meat is beef with benefits.” 

"Lite": According to the FDA, dishes labeled as “lite” must be lowcalorie(i.e. less than 120 calories) and lowfat, less than 3 grams per serving.  Calorie and fat claims can only be made if products naturally contain more than 40 calories per serving.

"Locally Grown": According to Whole Foods, locally grown foods are “products that have traveled less than a day (7 or fewer hours by car or truck).” Your best bet at finding “locally grown” items is at your local farmers’ market.

"Natural": The USDA defines “natural” as a “product containing no artificial ingredient or added color, and one that is only minimally processed. “Natural” food is unregulated by the USDA, so make sure to read the full ingredients list before purchasing.

"Natural Flavors": Any flavor that a fruit, vegetable, meat or plant material releases in the production of the item in which the “significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” –according to the Code of Federal Regulations

"No Preservatives": Preservatives are added to foods to extend shelf life and improve appearance. The safety of food preservatives is up for debate among academics and regulators. The best option is to stick to fresh foods.

"Organic": Foods that are 95-100 percent organic can use the USDA organic label.  Be mindful of packages that advertise, “Made with organic ingredients” or “Contains organic ingredients.”  Products with these labels are only required to contain 70-94 percent organic ingredients and will not have the USDA Organic seal  –according to

"Vegan": While there are no federal regulations on vegan products, Whole Foods requires items labeled ‘vegan’ to “include plant-based foods and exclude all ingredients from animal or insect sources.  Any animal- or insectderived by-products, such as carmine, gelatin, rennet, beeswax, etc.” Foods labeled as ‘vegan’ are 100 percent free of any of these ingredients.  The best way to ensure an item is vegan is to check that the product contains no cholesterol.  –according to and

"Vegetarian": Most items labeled as vegetarian “do not contain any ingredients derived from the flesh of meat, fish or fowl or ingredients derived from animal slaughter.” However, the American Vegetarian Association does allow products that contain eggs and dairy to be labeled as ‘vegetarian.’  according to and The American Vegetarian Association