Free-Range Food Labels: Can My Groceries Really Help The Planet? So many food labels proclaim their eco-virtues these days — organic. Pasture-raised. Cage-free. Non-GMO. What do they actually mean? Here are six ways to make sense of it all.

- "Natural" or "sustainable" labels have no legal standard.
- "Organic" means it's better for the planet, but may not be better for you.
- Non-GMO is not organic. The food was still grown with pesticides.
- Labels like "Animal Welfare Approved" mean the animals got to live outdoors.
- "Fair Trade" products deliver a little extra money to small farmers in cooperatives.
- Don't let labels stress you out. When it comes to solving the world's problems, your shopping decisions aren't nearly as important as your political decisions.
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Free-Range Food Labels: Can My Groceries Really Help The Planet?

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Free-Range Food Labels: Can My Groceries Really Help The Planet?

Free-Range Food Labels: Can My Groceries Really Help The Planet?

Free-Range Food Labels: Can My Groceries Really Help The Planet?

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Lindsey Balbierz for NPR
Ethical food labels
Lindsey Balbierz for NPR

So many food labels proclaim their eco-virtues these days — organic. Pasture-raised. Cage-free. Non-GMO. What do they actually mean? Here are six ways to make sense of it all.

  • Beware of ill-defined labels. It's easy to call food "natural" or "sustainable," because there's no legal standard for what those words mean.
  • An "organic" label does have a clear meaning, and it's enforced. Organic food delivers environmental benefits, but the food itself may not be better for you.
  • "Non-GMO" is not organic. The food was still grown with pesticides.
  • If you want to be sure that your milk or eggs come from animals that got to live outdoors, look for a third party on the label, such as Animal Welfare Approved or American Grassfed Association — or organic.
  • "Fair Trade" products deliver a little extra money to small farmers who are organized into cooperatives.
  • Don't let labels stress you out. When it comes to solving the world's problems, your shopping decisions aren't nearly as important as political decisions.

For this episode we spoke with Rebecca Thistlethwaite, who manages the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network at Oregon State University and co-authored a book on raising and selling ethical meat; Matt Dillon, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska and now works as Clif Bar & Company's director of agricultural policy and programs; and Kim Elena Ionescu, chief sustainability officer for the Specialty Coffee Association.