Most summer weekends, you can find me at a farmers market, admiring the colorful produce and standing in a long, long line to get my daughter’s face painted like a unicorn.

With so many vendors trying to attract customers, I’ve noticed a dictionary’s worth of food labels and signage – words like natural, organic, grass-fed and many more.

Some of these food labels are official, but many are just catchy marketing phrases. Navigating this linguistic landscape can be a bit confusing, so here’s a guide to help you understand them better.

And don’t hesitate to ask the farmers if you have questions. They’re happy to chat about what they do on the farm to grow safe, healthy food.

Organic: Organic doesn’t mean pesticide-free. Organic farmers can’t use synthetic pesticides, but they can use natural pesticides approved for organic food production. Organic foods also can’t contain genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). Foods labeled “organic” must follow strict regulations set by the USDA. Animals raised for organic meat, poultry and dairy must eat organic feed, have outdoor access and can’t be given antibiotics unless they’re sick. If animals are treated with antibiotics, then they can’t be labeled as organic.

Raised organically. Some smaller farms promote their foods as “raised organically” because organic certification can be costly. They might also follow other “sustainable” or “natural” practices, but these labels aren’t regulated by the USDA.

Natural. This label means the meat or poultry product has no artificial ingredients, added colors or excessive processing. However, there isn’t a standard definition for “natural,” so it can vary among products.

Grass-fed. Animals with this label have been fed grass or forage. However, it doesn’t guarantee they were raised on pasture. In northern states like Iowa, cattle might be kept indoors or under roof during the winter and fed grass and forage.

No antibiotics. All meat and poultry is tested before it goes to market to ensure it is free of antibiotic residues, as required by federal law. Farmers follow strict withdrawal restrictions to ensure meat is free of antibiotics before entering the food supply.

If a farm animal does get sick and needs antibiotics, it can’t be labeled as “no antibiotics.”

No hormones. There is no such thing as hormone-free meat and poultry. All living things, whether plants or animals, naturally produce hormones for growth, reproduction and the body’s daily functions.

Farmers sometimes give hormone implants to cattle to help encourage growth and increase the animals’ lean muscle mass. Cattle farmers have used hormones for more than 50 years as a safe, sustainable way to raise beef using less feed and fewer resources.

Even in hormone-implanted beef, the hormone levels in the meat remain extremely small.

A single 4-ounce serving of hormone-implanted beef contains about 1.6 nanograms of estrogen, compared to 1.2 nanograms in a single serving of non-implanted beef.

Many plant-based foods contain much higher amounts of estrogen-type compounds compared to beef. For example, a cup of soymilk has 25,000 nanograms of estrogen. Cabbage, peas and peanuts also have 1,000 fold or more estrogen than implanted beef.

Non-GMO or bioengineered. A genetically modified food (GMO) has its genes (or DNA) changed using technology, rather than traditional crossbreeding.

Research has shown that genetically modified foods are as healthful and safe to eat as non-GMO foods, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Some foods carry a non-GMO label, but only a few foods (such as corn and soybeans) are genetically modified in the first place.

The term “bioengineered” is a new label regulated by the USDA for genetically modified foods. Food manufacturers can also use a QR code on packaging to disclose bioengineered ingredients.

USDA or state inspected. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regularly inspects meat, dairy and poultry to make sure it’s safe to eat. At farmers markets, you might also see state-inspected products, which meet the same USDA safety standards.

Food choices for all

Remember, food labels can help you choose what’s best for you and your family, but they’re mostly about marketing, not safety or health.

When cooking at home, handle all foods – organic, locally grown or conventional – with the same care.

And always follow good food safety practices, like washing your hands and cooking to a food-safe temperature. For more information about safe food handling at home, visit

If you’re curious about how Iowa farmers work to ensure food safety and farm animal care, please visit