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7 Eco-Responsible Food Terms You Should Know

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Learn the meanings behind these food buzzwords, and your grocery trips will become much easier expeditions.

The other day, I was grocery shopping and I realized just how fraught with choice my expedition was. Vegetarian-fed or cage-free? Pastured or local? Fair-trade or bird-friendly?

By now we all know what organic means, but beyond that, there’s a whole world of terms, certifications and buzzwords that both help us and confuse us in our quest to buy the most environmentally-friendly foods we can find.

To make your food shopping a little less daunting, here are some terms you might encounter on labels, in restaurants, or in the media. Once you know what each term actually means you can decide for yourself if they’re important to you.

1. Cage-Free: According to the USDA, this term, referring to egg-laying chickens, means, “This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.” However, there aren’t specific parameters for the conditions in which the animals are kept regarding crowding, lighting and fresh air. It’s important to note that “cage-free” does not mean that the chickens have access to the outdoors.

2. Free-Range: This USDA-regulated label specifies that the flock has the ability to move about its enclosure, and it has continuous access to food, fresh water, and the outdoors during their production cycle.

3. Pastured: Also called “pasture-raised,” this term is one that farmers and producers use to indicate that their meat or eggs is from animals that are raised mostly outdoors, without confinement.

4. Biodynamic: A spiritual, ethical and ecological approach to farming, many believe that biodynamics is the predecessor to the organic movement. The goal of biodynamics is to heal the earth and to create a balanced ecosystem on a farm by using various preparations, scheduled planting practices, and other methods. Look for biodynamic foods at your farmer’s market, or seek out biodynamic wines.

5. Fair Trade: Fair Trade is a third-party certification for products that are grown and produced in a system where the farmers and workers are treated and paid fairly, the environment is respected, and the production is sustainable. You’ll see it most frequently on coffee, cocoa and other products that come from developing countries.

6. Grass-fed: The USDA uses this term for animals that receive the majority of their nourishment and nutrients from grass. While grass-fed meat is good from a humanity and environmental standpoint, since grass is what larger animals like cattle have evolved to eat, and it keeps them healthier, the USDA term still allows for the animals to be penned, and for them to be fed hormones and antibiotics1.

7. Minimally Treated: This unofficial term is for farmers who can’t afford the USDA organic certification process but still want to convey that they’re growing their produce without chemical fertilizer, pesticides and other artificial means. It’s not enforced by any certification, but it’s a term you’ll likely see a lot at farmers’ markets, food co-ops or natural food markets, and it’s a good way to support small, local farmers that might not have the means to get certified organic.

What eco-friendly terms do you look for on food labels? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.