What The Health Words On Food Packaging Actually Mean

Have you noticed a certain phenomenon going down at your local grocery store? Is the time you spend in each aisle getting longer with every visit? It may have something to do with the fact that mastering labels on food packages isn't as cut and dry as it once was. Sure, we can decipher basic nutritional information, but if a sticker pops up espousing "non-GMO" this and "grass-fed" that, what's the takeaway?

Bottom line: Choosing fuel for ourselves and our beloved pets should feel like an easy part of livin' our best lives. That's why we teamed up with Castor & Pollux® — creators of quality pet food made with organic and responsibly sourced ingredients — and tapped our favorite nutritionists to help us brush up on our vocabulary. Ahead, find straightforward explanations of the terms you see everywhere, and shop for yourself and your furry friend with confidence. Consider this your foodie cheat sheet.

You've likely come across a little round organic seal on your food, your pet's food, or even your beauty and home products. "This term has a legal definition and is strictly regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture," explains registered dietitian and nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner. "Organic products and food (including produce, livestock, and poultry) with the USDA organic symbol have been certified to be following national standards and have been produced and processed using approved, Earth-friendly methods."

These products have earned the seal because they are grown without synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and genetic engineering. A little bonus info? There are actually levels to just how organic your food can be. Only products containing a minimum of 95% organic ingredients can feature the USDA organic seal, but the term "made with organic" can be used when at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic.
Learning the difference between "free range" and "cage free" when it comes to buying poultry products can feel like a tricky part of your shopping experience. In order for chicken, turkey, or eggs to be considered free range, Blatner says producers have to prove to the USDA that the poultry is regularly allowed access to the outside. Cage free, on the other hand, means the poultry lives outside of cages, whether that's indoors or out.
The terms "GMO" and "non GMO" have long been the subject of back-and-forth debate in the health world. But what does the abbreviation actually mean? "GMO stands for genetically modified organism and refers to the modification of an organism's DNA through genetic engineering," says nutritionist Andy Bellatti. "The most common genetically modified crops in the country include soy, corn, cottonseed, canola, alfalfa, sugar beet, and papaya." The term "non GMO" is used to indicate no such modification has occurred.

So why mess with a plant's DNA? Blatner explains that the alterations are supposed to increase nutrition, produce more of a certain type of crop, or even better resist pests. Those who speak out about GMOs, though, often point to the fact that the "alterations" could cause unknown side effects and even allergies. If you're interested in avoiding GMOs for you and Fido, go for organic produce.
Simply put, this term applies to cows and lambs that eat a grass-based diet instead of grains for their entire lives."The USDA does evaluate and approve grass-fed claims," says Blatner. "But as of 2016, it no longer has one standard legal definition of the term. So on a label, grass fed may have slightly different meanings from one farm to another."

In case you were wondering why other animal products don't get the grass-fed treatment (hey, there are no dumb questions), the answer is basically that poultry and pigs don’t survive on grass, so it wouldn't be healthy or natural.