person reading labels

Demystifiying Food Labels

It seems like labels on food are never ending, which can make trips to the grocery store unnecessarily complicated. Before we get into food labels and what they mean, it’s important to note where these labels come from.

Any meat or poultry labels are overseen by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). All other products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are also plenty of labels whose standards are set by third-party, non-governmental organizations (NGO).

“One thing that makes demystifying food labels so tricky is that the labels we see on foods might not be relevant to the product that they’re on,” said Dr. Bryan Endres, Professor of Food and Agriculture Law at the University of Illinois, in an Instagram Live on food labels with Illinois Farm Families. “Take ‘no hormones added’ for example. We often see this label on products where it’s illegal to use hormones in production.”

Let’s break down what some of these terms mean so the next time you’re confronted with a label you can read it like a pro!

No added hormones or antibiotics

Labels such as “no hormones added” or “no antibiotics” refer to the production of an animal, meaning how the animal was raised. Organic livestock are not raised with any hormones or antibiotics. “No antibiotics ever” means that the animal never received any antibiotics throughout its life.

Animals raised with added hormones or antibiotics are not necessarily better or worse for you and your family. So, why would we treat animals with hormones or antibiotics?

Cattle may be treated with hormones to improve feed efficiency, protein deposition, and growth rate, which helps make production more efficient and sustainable. Antibiotics may be used to treat or prevent illness or, in some cases, to help promote growth. Antibiotics are used under the guidance of a veterinarian and are mostly used to treat bacterial infections the same way we would treat bacterial infections in humans.

Antibiotic stewardship on farms has improved tremendously as we’ve learned more about how they interact with bacteria. Now that we understand them better, we can identify and avoid situations that may result in antibiotic resistance. Most antibiotics used on today’s farms are not medically important to humans. This means they do not treat bacteria that are harmful to humans and will not affect our ability to treat humans with antibiotics.

Remember three important things when purchasing meat that’s labeled as “no hormones added” or “no antibiotics”:

  1. Since the 1950s, the FDA has approved artificial hormone use in beef cattle and sheep, but no steroid hormone implants are approved for growth purposes in dairy cows, veal calves, pigs, or poultry. So, if you see “no hormones added” on a package of pork loins or chicken breasts, those products don’t have any fewer hormones than pork or chicken without the “no hormones added” label.
  2. There is no antibiotic residue present in any animal products you find at the grocery store. Even if an animal was treated with an antibiotic while being raised, farmers must abide by a holding period before the animal leaves the farm, and they are tested extensively for antibiotic residue throughout production and processing. When a dairy cow is treated with antibiotics, their milk is disposed of until tests show no evidence of antibiotics in the milk. Samples from individual dairy farms are also routinely collected and tested before milk is sold.
  3. Farmers want what’s best for their animals, the planet, and for your family. If they’re choosing to treat their animals with hormones or antibiotics, they’ve done their research and have determined that it’s what’s best for everyone involved.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are products that have been genetically engineered at the DNA level. This genetic engineering can help these products require fewer pesticides, breed out undesirable traits, or even breed resistance to disease.

Genetically engineered foods use biotechnology to speed up the natural process of eliminating weaknesses.

“The concept of breeding for better traits has been around for thousands of years,” says Dr. Bryan Endres. “Previously, we would crossbreed or selectively breed to get the best traits from different seeds. Now, we can go in at the DNA level to make more specific changes in a shorter amount of time.”

While it seems like the non-GMO label is everywhere you turn, only a handful of GMO foods are approved by the FDA and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) maintains a list of bioengineered foods that anyone can view.

When it comes to determining whether GMOs are welcome in your household, the most important thing to remember is that these are regulated products that the FDA has determined are safe for consumption and do not pose a risk to you or your family.

Organic and all natural

Over the years, many have started to view “organic” and “all natural” as synonymous with “healthy” but that’s simply not the case. Both terms refer to the production stages of a plant or animal.

“Organic” is a label overseen by the USDA. Organic products must be produced using agricultural production practices that foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.

Organic livestock must be:

  • Produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.
  • Managed in a manner that conserves natural resources and biodiversity.
  • Raised per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).
  • Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program authorized certifying agent, meeting all USDA organic regulations.

“All natural” is not a label that is overseen by any government agency. While “all natural” is not a regulated term, the FDA considers the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic—including all color additives—has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.

The FDA’s policy for “natural” does not address any food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor does it address food processing or manufacturing methods.

The most important thing to remember when purchasing food labeled as “organic” or “all natural” is that these labels do not equate to healthiness or nutritional value. Eating a well-balanced diet is far more important when it comes to keeping your family healthy.

What’s right for my family?

Our farmers, the USDA, and the FDA work hard to ensure that the food available to us is safe and nutritious. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what’s best for your family. Illinois Farm Families is here to help with resources on hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, and food labels that can help you make informed choices.