Blog Entries, Nutrition Choices, Wellness

Protein Labels 101

Organic vs. Natural vs. Free Range vs. Grass Fed: Making sense of labels on your protein choices.

Natural, Organic or free range? How to know the details behind the labels.

“Natural” can be very misleading. The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Processing must not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a specific explanation such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.” So, based on this definition, ALL fresh, raw meat qualifies as natural. Confusing? Absolutely. This term does not require that animals be raised in sufficient open space or indicate that antibiotics have been used prudently. It does not bar growth hormones. It does not mean organic. The term can mislead consumers to believe that a product is healthier and more humane than it is.

Food labeled organic must be third-party certified to meet the USDA’s criteria. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge. Organic meat and poultry cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics (sick animals must be treated, but cannot be sold as organic) and must be fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture. 

The USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” It does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on open fields. Some cattle marketed as USDA grass-fed actually spend part of their lives in confined pens or feedlots.

Free range
Free Range refers to food from animals, for example, meat or eggs, that are produced from animals that have access to outdoor spaces. Usually, free range also stands for animals who have free access to graze or forage for food. Although the term “free range” brings to mind wide open spaces with animals living in nature, eating natural foods and soaking in the sunlight, there are no government regulations in place in the U.S. to ensure this is the case. Therefore, it’s important for producers to be clear about what they mean when they say their food is “free range.”

In addition, while all organically-raised food is automatically free range (to be a certified organic vendor, standards require this), all food raised free range is not necessarily organic. Synonyms for “free range” include: free-roaming, cage-free, and pasture-raised.

Learn more about label claims at EWG’s interactive meat and dairy label decoder:

Source: From EWG’s Meat Eater’s Guide

Want to know more detail: check the link above, or this article on labels.

This entry was posted in: Blog Entries, Nutrition Choices, Wellness


I'm a 18 year breast cancer survivor, RN, certified functional medicine health coach, graphic designer, wife, mother and grandmother. This blog is my story, and the result of a difficult and complicated struggle to regain my health. I hope by sharing my story and what I've learned, I can help others thrive the way I have been able to. Thanks for visiting.


  1. Stephanie from Together Farms in Mondovi just dropped of my butchered 1/2 Hog which was raised humanely and developed the proper fats that will be delicious and help me maintain great health. Enough of our low priced CAFO proteins that cost more when you looks at the healthcare costs and fast declines in quality of life.
    Buy local meats from your local rancher/farmer – it will save you so much money and it will taste and feel so much better.

    • Time2Thrive says

      Agree Bob. And you’re lucky to live in an area where there are so many farmers embracing this. We have shifted to entirely local protein sources from our local co-op where the meat manager really knows his farmers. Thanks for sharing. We need to spend more money on the fuel that runs our bodies. We spend more on fuel for our car engines! #foodismedicine

  2. The word “Natural” for meats really means you agree to mistreat animals so we can eat them and then get sick from the poor health they were in to give us milk or meat. Usually the savings are a factor as well for people who think a animal tortured low cost protein rich diet is luxurious.
    I was one of them years ago.
    Now I have changed eat high quality protein at a high cost.

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