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Decoding Your Dinner

What's the difference between organic and natural? Grass-fed? Free-range? Find out the legal definitions of these and other words in our culinary lexicon.

Do you ever feel perplexed when you go to the grocery store? There are so many descriptors for food: Organic, natural, grass-fed, free-range … What does it all mean? Here are the legal definitions of these, and other words in our culinary lexicon.

Get the Definitions
In the world of food production, legal definitions and requirements behind the claims change continuously. Here are a few of the most common to let you know what you’re buying:

– Natural: This means there are no artificial ingredients and added color, and the food is minimally processed. It doesn’t guarantee that there were no hormones or synthetic fertilizers used during production.

– Organic: USDA Organic certification indicates no conventional pesticides and herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, genetically modified seed, or ionizing radiation were used during production or processing.

– Local: Local food is typically meat, dairy, eggs, and produce grown as close to home as possible. While there are no hard and fast rules, it’s usually within 100 miles of home.

– Conventional: This is the food commonly found in grocery stores, typically brought in from outside the region, and many times, outside the country.

– Grass-fed: These are animals raised on a forage diet, such as fresh grass or hay, and are supposed to have access to pasture, although standardization is still sketchy.

– Free-range: The thought of free-range animals is to give them ample access to the outdoors rather than keeping them confined in small spaces, although, legally, producers simply have to provide access. Many times the animals are not conditioned to use an open door and spend their lives in enclosed spaces.

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Amy Grisak

Amy Grisak is a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer specializing in gardening, local food, and stories about her home state of Montana. She enjoys sharing her experiences with self-reliant living and outdoor recreation. Her article on the "hugelkultur" gardening technique appears in the 2021 Farmers' Almanac. You can follow her topics on her site,

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