What does that grocery label mean?

WATCH ABOVE: Confused by food labels? We walk you through some of the most common claims made on food packaging.

A huge number of labels appear on supermarket foods, but their meaning might be confusing. Here is a look at some of the most common labels.


Organic foods are certified by an outside body to contain at least 95 per cent organic ingredients. However, the “organic” label is only certified when a food is traded over provincial or national borders. While some provinces have certifications for organic products within their borders, not all do.

Organic animals must be raised in conditions that at a minimum allow them enough space to lie down, turn around freely, stretch their limbs and allow access to daylight and fresh air. Organic foods generally cannot contain the following (though some exceptions are made):

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  • GMOs
  • Added hormones and prophylactic antibiotics
  • Radiation or irradiated substances
  • Cloned animals or their descendants
  • Intentionally-manufactured nano-technology products
  • Synthetic pesticides
  • Synthetic processing substances
Organic tomato bisque on the shelf at an Ohio Whole Foods. Tony Dejak / AP Photo


“Natural” food labels shouldn’t convey the impression that the food is nutritionally superior because of nature, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Natural foods are foods that:

  • Do not contain added vitamins, minerals or artificial flavours
  • Do not have any constituent removed or significantly changed, except for removing water
  • Have not been processed in a way, like hydrogenation, which significantly alters their physical, chemical or biological state (drying, freezing and canning are ok, as are a number of other less-invasive processes)

If the entire food doesn’t qualify as “natural”, manufacturers might label it as containing “natural ingredients”, which means that some ingredients are natural, and some aren’t.

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Certified in accordance with the requirements of Jewish dietary laws by the Rabbi or Rabbinical organization that is identified on the package.


As halal requirements can vary, this is more complicated than kosher labelling – there’s no single standard. So while Canadian laws prohibit false or misleading claims, including “Halal,” on packaging, it’s hard for customers to know precisely what halal standard is being applied. New regulations coming into force on April 4, 2016 will require halal products to include the name of the certifying body. That way, customers can look up that body’s standards and choose according to their wishes.

No added hormones

No hormones were administered in any way to the animal that makes up the food product. However, you are not allowed to use any hormones at all on some animals – the CFIA says it’s misleading to label “raised without hormones” on animals where it’s not allowed anyway, like chicken and pork.

Raised without the use of antibiotics

The animal must not have received antibiotics from its birth to its death, and even the mother can’t have been given antibiotics that would result in residue in the animal being consumed. Other drugs and vaccines may have been administered though.

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Free-range or Free-run (chicken or eggs)

Although there is no legal definition of either term, industry groups have set standards which they monitor on farms. Free-range chickens have access to outdoor space, though there are no stipulations on how much time they spend outdoors or what the outdoor environment is like. Free-run chickens are indoor birds who roam freely through the barn. As chickens raised for meat in Canada aren’t kept in cages, this term is somewhat redundant in the case of chicken meat – less so for eggs. However, the free-range chickens have less space than you might think: industry guidelines for meat chickens stipulate a maximum density of 31 kilograms (or about 14 chickens) per square metre, though some provinces have set lower densities.

Also, given Canada’s cold climate, free-range chicken and eggs are really seasonal products since the birds will spend a lot of time indoors anyway.

Homemade or artisan

Homemade means not commercially prepared, even in a small establishment. Homemade foods require no additional preparation. “Tastes like homemade” is fine to say, as it’s left to the customer’s judgement.

Artisan means food manufactured in small batches, with limited use of automated machines operating on mass quantities of food. It would also use additives and preservatives that would be typically purchased from a grocery store and found in a home kitchen. “Artisan-style” is looser.

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“Fed no animal byproducts,” “grain-fed” and other feed claims

The CFIA says these claims are fine if they’re true. Generally self-explanatory, as in “grain-fed” means that the animal ate only grains and grain byproducts. However, in the case of “grain-fed,” it does not mean that the animal didn’t also eat medications, vitamins or even animal-derived additives like Vitamin D3 that was derived from lanolin. That additive wouldn’t be allowed under a “no animal byproducts” label.

If it says that the animal was raised on feed that includes grains, keep in mind that it includes other things too.

“Natural” vs. “Artificial” colour or flavour

Natural flavours and colours are derived from animal or vegetable raw materials. Artificial flavours and colours are derived in whole or part from components obtained by chemical synthesis. However, if an ingredients label just says “colour,” it could be either natural or artificial, or a number of different colouring agents. Although all colours added to food must be approved by Health Canada, companies don’t have to identify them specifically on the label.

Made in Canada

Means the food was prepared in Canada, but the ingredients may or may not have come from Canada.

Product of Canada

Means the food was made in Canada and all or nearly all of the ingredients are from Canada. Small amounts of non-Canadian ingredients, like spices, are allowed.

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A good general rule to remember is that labels aren’t allowed to lie – but the claims made might be extremely narrow or imply more than they’re actually saying as a marketing ploy. For example, a food advertised as containing “natural” ingredients probably does, but it might contain a lot of unnatural ingredients as well. It’s best to read labels very literally.

And while these are the rules, it’s fair to say that they are not always followed. If you feel that a food might be mislabelled or makes misleading claims, you can contact the CFIA or in Quebec, the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation.

Edit: Story edited to add information that food label regulations are not always followed.



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