Organic: Foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.
Natural: This product label is not synonymous with organic. “Natural” means that the product doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients or colors. These products are also minimally processed, but the label must include a more detailed explanation of what exactly makes it natural.
Free-Range: “Free-range” or “free-roaming” means that the animals have access to the outdoors, though there is no standard for how much access they have. Consider springing for organic rather than free-range if animal welfare is a primary concern.
Cage-Free: Some egg producers house hens in cage-free environments. These systems are generally considered to offer better conditions for the animals, though they’re still far from cruelty-free. There’s no evidence the nutritional quality of the eggs differs based on caged and cage-free systems.
Antibiotic-free: Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can result from the overuse of antibiotics, and those bacteria can be passed from animals to humans through the food chain. Farms that use fewer antibiotics have been shown to have fewer resistant bugs, which may make their products safer when they reach the table (though studies are still preliminary).
Hormone-free: The presence of hormones is one of the most significant differences between conventional and organic milk products, even if there still isn’t absolute evidence that hormones are dangerous. For buyers that choose to avoid hormones, hormone-free (rather than all-out organic) dairy products offer the same benefits at a potentially lower price.
Transitional: Going organic is not cheap or quick (for the farmer!), and the easiest way to help a farm make the switch is buying transitional food. “Transitional” means that the product has been cultivated according to organic standards, but the soil and farm conditions haven’t yet completely met organic standards or the farm’s organic status is pending.