The No Nonsense Guide to Food Labels at Farmers' Markets

by Megan Hill Jul 12, 2010
Ever wondered what the difference is between cage-free, free-range and farm-raised food? Megan Hill helps make sense of the labels you might find at farmers’ markets.

Farmers’ markets today can present quite a challenge to conscientious shoppers. There are so many different labels used to describe produce and meat – local, sustainable, free range, cage-free and so on – that the process of shopping can become rather daunting.

This no-nonsense food label dictionary will help you work out what it is you’re really buying.


This is an unregulated claim. It generally means the hens who laid the eggs were allowed to live outside of cages, as opposed to conventionally raised chickens that are stuffed into high-density cages (and probably fed animal protein).

Cage-free birds don’t necessarily have access to the outdoors, though. It’s best to ask the farmer how he or she raised the birds.

Certified organic

A farm must be chemical-free for three years, meaning no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or chemical herbicides can be used. Organic meat, eggs, and dairy products must come from livestock that have not received antibiotics or growth hormones, and were given only organic feed.

The farm has to pay for the organic label. Most certifications in the US are handed out by the USDA, and any other certifying bodies must be approved by them.


Fish or other seafood deliberately grown, rather than caught wild. Many environmentalists object to farm-raised seafood because the farms often have the same environmental impacts as other industrial farms. They may use antibiotics or other chemicals, and can cause water pollution.

It’s generally better to buy seafood that has been caught wild and comes from a well-managed source that isn’t over-fished.

Free range

This can apply to meat, dairy, or eggs. The USDA only regulates this claim for chickens and eggs, and it means the birds were allowed access to the outdoors. Whether they were actually outside, or for how long, is not regulated. When in doubt, ask the farmer how things are done. Free range livestock generally roam freely outdoors.


Grass-fed cattle eat what cattle have evolved to eat: grass. They are allowed to graze naturally, and the meat can be up to six times higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised beef.

Grain-fed or conventionally raised cattle are forced to eat corn, and probably animal waste products too. Because cattle haven’t evolved to eat this way, they are plied with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. These antibiotics end up in the manure, are transferred to water sources and can then enter the entire food chain.


Can mean one of two things: that the cattle were fed grass their entire lives, or that they were fed grain until they approached slaughter, at which point they were switched to grass. To find out which it is, you’ll need to ask the farmer.


These plants have never been hybridized (bred for specific qualities) by humans, a process that reduces biodiversity and results in fewer varieties of produce on the market. Heirloom plants are often considered to be varieties grown during earlier periods of human history. They are sometimes bizarre colors and shapes, like purple cauliflower or blue potatoes.


This is the animal version of heirloom. Heritage breeds have been pushed out of the food chain in favor of the few livestock breeds that do well in industrial agriculture. Heritage breeds are often centuries old. Farming them helps promote biodiversity, and their meat can be healthier and more flavorsome.


Usually defined as food grown within a one hundred mile radius. Advantages of buying local are that the food is fresh, its environmental impact is less, and you are most likely supporting a small farm and making an investment in the community you live in.

Natural or All natural

These labels are unregulated and have no agreed-upon meaning! Be sure to ask or do some research to find out more.

Organically grown

Some small farmers can’t afford to pay for the organic label, but they subscribe to the same – or stricter – organic practices and so use this term instead.


Pastured livestock and poultry are raised outside in fields and allowed to eat a natural diet. Meat, dairy, and eggs from pastured animals generally have higher levels of nutrients.


Some farmers have opted out of the certified organic label, recognizing that it is increasingly meaningless as big farms figure out ways to meet the bare minimum for certification.

They’ve chosen instead to practice what was really at the heart of the organic movement when it first started: farming practices that minimize impact, forgo the use of chemicals, and embrace a more holistic approach to growing food that recognizes biodiversity and animal ethics. For specifics, ask the farmer.

Transitional organic

A farm currently practicing organic farming that hasn’t reached the three year mark needed to become certified.

The most important piece of advice

Whenever you are in doubt about what a label means or exactly how some food was produced, just ask the farmer. That’s the beauty of a farmers’ market: you should be able to get reliable information right from the source.

To find a farmers’ market near you, visit Local Harvest.

For more information on these topics, check out The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and To Buy or Not to Buy Organic by Cindy Burke.


Any other food labels you are still confused about? Ask Megan in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Going Organic: 6 Reasons Why You Should (Or Shouldn’t) and A Matador Guide to Joining Your Local CSA.

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