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What do all the confusing terms on my food labels mean? by Maureen St. Germain

In September, I started a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner course through the Nutritional Therapy Association. I have been continually amazed and excited as I learn about the human body and how we can use food to help heal ourselves from chronic conditions as well as aid with healthy aging. Each month, I will pick a topic and provide insight so we all can work towards optimal health.

There is so much jargon and terminology out there today, it can all get pretty confusing. Let’s demystify some of these terms so you can make better food purchases and choices!


When you see “conventional” listed next to a fruit, vegetable or animal product know that it means it is grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The product can be a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)-more on this term below. These products can be given hormones and antibiotics. The use of chemicals allow for a higher production of crops and larger animals to increase profit margin.


Organic in the United States (this does change from country to country) means that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used. Instead, they would use plant or animal based fertilizers and pesticides. No GMOs are involved. No hormones or antibiotics are used. These farms/ companies are required to go through annual audits to maintain their organic certification.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

According to the NonGMOProject website, a GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.

While you may think of this as mostly affecting crops such a corn and soy, you need to keep in mind that most livestock is fed corn, therefore, your steak dinner with corn on cob as a side can be laden with GMOs! According to the NonGMOProject website, there is still controversy as to whether GMOs are safe for us. It is interesting to note that by 2022, a number of products will be required by law to be label if they contains GMOs.

Regenerative Agriculture

This is a newer term and maybe the most exciting one out there (ok, maybe only exciting if you are becoming a nutrition nerd like me!). These are farms that are going BEYOND organic and look at their farms as a whole ecosystem that can be maintained through practices such as crop rotation to keep soil nutrient dense, allowing animals to eat their intended food source (example: historically cows have always eaten grass…why would anyone feed them corn?), allowing these animals to live as intended, pasture-raised, using animal waste as fertilizer and embracing diversity of crops and animals to allow the land to naturally sustain itself.


These are animals that live primarily outside and have access to their intended food source yet their diet is supplemented with grain, if necessary, i.e. there is a foot of snow on the ground and the cows can’t get to grass. Therefore, pastured-raised refers more towards where the animal lives then what they are fed.


These are ruminant animals that eat their nature intended diet of grass. Please note that this is not a highly regulated term. Grass-fed animals can be finished on grain the last few months of its life. Therefore, you may want to look for labels reading, 100% Grass Fed.


Sounds great, correct? No! These are animals (primarily chickens) who may not be in a cage but are kept indoors, in tight quarters with no fresh air or sunlight meaning they also cannot eat their intended diet of insects and instead are given grains.


This seems like a step in the right direction but free-range really just means there is an open door in that overcrowded barn the chickens can walk through, if they want. You have no idea if the chicken your eggs came from ever stepped outside to have the sun warm its feathers or the quality of the outdoor space.

Wild caught

This sea animal was harvested from its natural habitat, the ocean. It is good to keep in mind, you should eat smaller fish, they have absorbed less toxins from the ocean.

Farm Raised

Exactly what it sounds like, sea animals raised on a farm. Think of overcrowded tanks and believe it or not, some farm raised fish are being fed grains as well! Neither of these are nature intended!


Refined grain means they have removed the bran and germ from the grain and unfortunately also removing dietary fiber, iron and many B vitamins all of which are vital to proper function of our bodies.

Whole Grains

These products have kept the germ and bran intact and therefore salvaging some of the nutrients.


Although “natural” in the food industry usually means the product is minimally process and doesn’t have artificial ingredients or preservatives, keep in mind the product still could have been exposed to chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Dirty Dozen

This reference to the 12 fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residue because they absorb pesticides through their skins. It is always best to purchase the following 12 foods from an organic source:











Sweet Bell Peppers


This is a lot of information but as you become familiar with these terms it will become second nature and you can choose what is important to you when you are selecting food. We are lucky we are surrounded by farm land, I recommend trying to take advantage of these farms as much as possible, Visit farmer’s markets for fresh, seasonal produce and meats. Sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program to receive a wide variety of seasonal produce. Maybe go in with a friend or two and purchase a whole pig, cow, or lamb. When you do this you have control over the cuts you receive. We are also fortunate to have some great shops that work with local farms, which I have listed below.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions from farmers or shop owners. As Michael Pollen, author of Ominvore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food states, “We are what what you eat eats too.” So take some time to give your food choices some thought. Your health is dependent on it!


Non GMO Project. (2019). What is a GMO? Retrieved from

Pollen, Michael. (2008). In Defense of Food. New York, NY: The Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Local Resources

Gentle Harvest, Marshall, VA

Locke Store, Millwood, VA

The Market at Blue Water Kitchen, Upperville, VA

Mt. Airy Farmers Market, Boyce, VA

The Whole Ox, Marshall, VA

Farmer’s Markets

Loudoun Valley Farmer’s Markets,

CSA Finder

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