Food Labels Explained: Organic, Sustainable, Hormone-Free

| October 1, 2012

organic fruits and vegetables Not everyone speaks fluent food. When a restaurant menu includes labels such as “hormone-free” and “sustainable,” many diners scratch their heads in confusion. Learn the meanings behind five common food labels and you can make informed decisions about the food you order.


For an ingredient on a menu to be labeled “organic,” it must have been grown or raised without drugs or chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) governs the use of this label, visiting farms to ensure that the criteria are met.


All animals have hormones. This term actually means that growth hormones were not administered to the animal in question. The USDA does not allow hormone use in the raising of hogs or poultry, but it does allow it for cattle and sheep. The debate in the U.S. rages on regarding the effects of added hormones on consumers. There are other countries that have banned their use. Look for an “organic” label on an ingredient to ensure the absence of added hormones.


Simply put, this means pesticides were not used in the growing of the ingredient. How harmful are pesticides? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Laboratory studies show that pesticides can cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time. However, these effects depend on how toxic the pesticide is and how much of it is consumed.”

Some consumers prefer to err on the side of caution and avoid them altogether, especially when it comes to ordering for children, who may be especially sensitive to the health risks associated with pesticides. Look for an “organic” label to ensure pesticide-free ingredients.

Locally Grown

If you see this label on a menu, ask your server to define “local.” Some consider local 100 miles from farm to table, while others extend the distance to 200 miles. Locally grown ingredients show support of local farmers as well as a desire to use the freshest products available. Locally grown does not necessarily mean it is organic, but it could be.


In the 1990 farm bill, Congress defined the term “sustainable agriculture” as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole

Rattle that off to your fellow diners at a restaurant to really impress.

Now that you know the meanings behind these five common food labels, use DexKnows to find establishments that offer such healthy foods.

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Category: Food & Dining, What's in Your Food

About the Author ()

Pamela Mitchell spent more than 15 years at daily newspapers such as the Hartford Courant and Houston Chronicle before becoming a full-time freelancer. She now writes about a variety of topics, from dining and entertainment to pets and travel.