Food labels galore…learn the truth behind each certification

I get many of our food staples from our own backyard or local farmer’s market, especially during this time of year. But every so often, we make a run to a big box grocery store—and I’m always astounded by all of the non-scientific “marketing speak” found on food labels.

So, today, let’s look at the most popular food labels on the market and discuss how you can actually bring home the safest, cleanest, healthiest foods for you and your family…

Cage-free eggs

These eggs come from hens that are not housed in the abominable “battery” cages (the small, wire cages found on conventional, large-scale poultry farms). But the hens are still kept indoors most of their lives—often in big, warehouse-type facilities that house tens of thousands of birds.

Plus, they’re only allocated 67 square inches per bird. That’s smaller than a sheet of notebook paper!

Sure, there may be some perches inside the facility. But the hens are typically packed together so tightly, their movements are severely restricted. And according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), these hens are only required to have the freedom to roam during the laying cycle! Which means farmers can keep them in cages during all other times.

(I should also note that this designation only applies to hens that lay eggs. Chickens kept for their meat—called “broiler chickens” by the industry—are never housed in cages.)

Free-range eggs

Many people see this label and envision eggs that come from hens that spend their days freely roaming the countryside. But if you bought your “free-range” eggs at the grocery store, instead of from your local farmer, that vision probably isn’t very accurate.

Free-range does mean the eggs came from hens that are allowed some access to the outdoors. But here again—the hens probably lived in a large facility, housing as many as 100,000 birds, with just a few small doors to get outside.

Plus, according to one expert who was recently interviewed on National Public Radio, you may only see 30 hens pecking around outside, while the rest are still cooped up indoors. Especially because, yet again, the USDA only requires free-range hens continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.

Ideally, you should aim to consume eggs that come from hens that have actual free-range in Nature, like the chickens my daughter and her new husband have started to raise on our summer property in New England…

Our flock includes:

  • Six New Hampshire Red hens named Aspen, Ash, Oak, Pine, Maple, and Poplar
  • Two Leghorns, a breed of chicken that originated from the Italian city of Livorno, named Foghorn and Leghorn
  • Two Buff Orpingtons named Buffy and Buffarina
  • Two Ameraucanas, yet to be named
  • One red rooster named Whiskey

Our flock wanders freely across our one acre of grass and woodland, which abuts wetlands on three sides, eating ticks, grubs, and other insects. We give them high-quality chicken feed and scraps from the table.

At sundown, they go inside a wooden coop with indoor perches and roosts, which protects them from coyotes, fisher cats, and the occasional raccoon. Then, at sunup, they go outside again.

As I’ve written before, this kind of small-scale farm is making a comeback in America. And this new trend gives me hope that we can all break free from big agriculture and return to a healthy, independent way of living, as Thomas Jefferson envisioned in his agrarian democracy for our country.

Because you can’t get any healthier than raising your own chickens and eggs, and growing your own produce. So, if you can’t raise the chickens yourself, seek to find eggs from a local farmer.


This label is mainly found on beef to indicate that the cows were never confined in a conventional feedlot or fed a grain-based diet. But, again, be careful about your expectations here. Much of the grass-fed ground beef sold in big box grocery stores comes from Australia and New Zealand. (New Zealand also provides the U.S. with most of its grass-fed lamb, too.)

Instead, I advise getting your grass-fed beef, lamb, and broiler chickens from local sources whenever possible. And finding a local farmer is probably easier than you think. In fact, a quick internet search turned up a number of farms that offer free-range, grass-fed beef near our summer home in Massachusetts.

Sometimes these farms require you to purchase a portion of the whole cow in the spring. But sometimes, they offer a la carte sales as well.

Pasture raised

A pasture-raised claim on meat, poultry, dairy, or egg labels means that the animals were raised with access to a pasture for at least some of their lives, instead of being continually confined indoors. Typically, it means that chickens or cattle were rotated to graze on different pastures.

This label is one of the best, especially when backed by a credible and enforced certifying organization. So, look for tags that say, “pasture raised” and “Animal Welfare Approved.” It’s better for the animals—and for human consumers!

Fair trade

This label typically appears on imported coffee, chocolate, and sometimes bananas. It means that products were made using environmentally sustainable practices and that the people involved in production were treated and compensated fairly. Fair trade certified products are usually about 30 percent higher than the standard market price. But critics say the label doesn’t mean as much as it once did. Most of these foods are only grown in far-away places like Africa, Asia, or South America.


I warn you regularly about the dangers of eating foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These foods include ingredients—most often canola, corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and wheat—that were bred to withstand obligate exposure to the toxic pesticide glyphosate (“Round-up®”).

So, I understand why the “non-GMO” food label could catch your attention. But it’s a bit misleading, to say the least. In fact, it just means that the product doesn’t contain a GM ingredient (like the ones listed above). But it can still contain plenty of other ingredients that have been sprayed with toxic pesticides.

You can learn about the foods that carry the biggest pesticide burden in the July 2019 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter (“Summer produce hits and misses—What this year’s “Dirty Dozen” list tells us about the dangerous state of pesticide use”). If you’re not yet a subscriber, now’s the perfect time to get started.


When you see an organic label on produce, meats, and dairy, there’s no need to look any further. It’s the best choice for your health and for the environment.

For one, organic farmers must follow strict rules that ban artificial chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. GMOs and their associated, obligate pesticides are also banned.

Not to mention, organic farmers often use composted animal manure as fertilizer, instead of chemical fertilizer. And instead of using pesticides like glyphosate, they control pests with crop rotation and crop diversity, which naturally repels predators.

Plus, organically raised cattle and chickens are treated humanely. And they’re only fed organic feed, which is the main reason for the added expense.

Of course, as I’ve explained before, big agribusiness is now attempting to take over the organic food industry.

So, your best bet is to grow your own organic foods or buy certified organic foods from a local farmer…including bread, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, and produce. This practice will get you out and about in the community, which is good for body and soul. You will even meet some new people who share the same values as you—even in flinty, old New England!

And when you visit a big box store, remember to stick to the perimeter of the building, where they keep all the fresh, whole foods. And keep this handy list with you to help examine food labels closely.


“Why Food Reformers Have Mixed Feelings About Eco-Labels.” National Public Radio, 6/12/2019. (

“USDA Graded Cage-Free Eggs: All They’re Cracked Up To Be.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 9/13/19. (