Food labels explained

Free-Range vs Pasture-Raised – Food Labels Explained

Food labels on animal-based products are intended to inform the consumer about the manner in which the product is sourced, but some of these labels can be a bit misleading. While the labels may sound similar, there is a huge difference between free-range and pasture-raised meats, eggs, and dairy.

In this article, we will explain what these food labels actually mean and provide you with everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision on your next trip to the market.

Highest Quality Meats, Eggs & Dairy

You are what you eat, and you are what your food ate. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but it is true nonetheless. Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have been fed their natural diet have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), minerals, and vitamins, than those fed corn, soy, and or grains.

Animals free to roam in open spaces also have lower cortisol levels (stress hormone), are exposed to fewer pesticides and toxins, and are commonly raised without growth hormones or antibiotics.

An additional caveat that contributes to food label confusion is the fact that labels are not universal for all types of animal-based products. Before we delve into what each label means, lets first look at what labels you should be searching for when choosing specific products.

Beef & Lamb

Both cattle (beef) and lamb (less than one-year-old sheep) are grazers that consume grass almost exclusively. Because this is their natural diet, grass-fed beef or lamb is considered top quality.

In some instances, cattle or lambs may be transferred off pasture and confined in a feedlot to be fattened up just prior to processing. During this period, these animals may be fed grass in the form of hay, but more often, they are fed grains.

The best quality beef and lamb is, therefore, 100% grass-fed and grass-finished, pasture-raised, and local. This means that the animals remained in the pasture, consuming grass or hay until processing and buying locally reduces the stress, impacts, and fuel emissions associated with long-distance transport.

Selecting the Best Beef or Lamb

  • Best: 100% grass-fed and finished, pasture-raised, local
  • Better: Grass-fed, pasture-raised
  • Good: Organic
  • Baseline: Commercial, hormone & antibiotic-free
Pasture Raised Cattle


Because pigs have a more varied natural diet and don’t consume grass exclusively, there is no grass-fed label option for pork. Pasture-raised and local is, therefore, the best option.

Selecting the Best Pork

  • Best: Pasture-raised, local
  • Better: Free-range, organic
  • Good: Cage-free, organic
  • Baseline: Commercial
Pasture raised pigs

Eggs & Poultry (Chicken, Turkey, Goose & Duck)

The natural diet of poultry is a mix of grasses, insects, seeds, and grubs, and therefore, grass-fed is not an option you should be looking for. Similar to pork, the best option for poultry and eggs is pasture raised and local.

Selecting the Best Eggs & Poultry

  • Best: Pasture raised, local
  • Better: Free-range, organic
  • Good: Cage-free, organic
  • Baseline: Commercial
Pasture raised chickens


When it comes to dairy, grass-fed, raw/unpasteurized, and full-fat is the best way to go. We generally recommend limiting dairy but choosing the right source can make a considerable difference.

Selecting the Best Dairy

  • Best: Grass-fed, raw/unpasteurized
  • Better: Raw/unpasteurized
  • Good: Grass-fed
  • Baseline: Commercial or organic (not recommended at all)
Pasture raised dairy cows

What Do Food Labels Actually Mean?

Grass-fed (Beef or Lamb)

Grass-fed and pasture-raised are not synonymous terms. One refers to what the animal eats (grass), and the other refers to where an animal is raised (in a pasture). There can, however, be overlap.

For instance, grass-fed cattle may have access to a pasture but may also be confined indoors or within a corral system and simply fed grass in the form of hay or baleage (green cut and vacuum-sealed pasture grass). Alternatively, cattle raised on a pasture can still be fed corn, soy, or grains.

It is important to note that beef and/or lamb products can still be labeled as grass-fed even though the animals received supplemental grain feed or were finished on a grain-based diet.

Feeding cattle or lambs a grain-based diet for a few months is a common strategy used to fatten up the animals just prior to processing. Incidentally, that is what grains do in humans as well, and why the USDA food pyramid is often referred to as the feedlot diet by knowledgeable nutritionists.

For the best quality beef or lamb, it is therefore important to look for either 100% grass-fed (only fed grass for their entire life) or the additional label of grass-fed and grass-finished.


As noted above, grass-finished is an additional food label that often accompanies grass-fed and is there to specify that the animal ate grass throughout its lifetime, including the final months prior to processing.

A label that only reads grass-finished (not common) could indicate that the animals had been fed soy, corn, or grains previously but were finished on grass.

Pasture Raised

There is no pasture-raised certification, however, certified organic meat must come from animals that have continuous access to pasture regardless of whether they use it or not. The benefit of being pasture-raised is that the animals are able to roam free and consume elements of their natural diets, including grasses, forbs, and bugs/grubs.

As mentioned earlier, however, as a stand-alone label, pasture-raised does not necessarily mean that the animals consumed their natural diet exclusively. Pasture-raised animals can receive supplemental soy, corn, and/or grain feed or be finished on a grain-based diet.

Cage-Free (Eggs & Poultry)

Again, there is no third-party review associated with labeling a product as cage-free. “Cage-free” means that the animals remain uncaged but still contained within warehouses or barns. They don’t necessarily have access to the outdoors, and certain procedures, such as beak cutting, is still permitted.

Free-Range or Roaming

With regard to ruminants such as cattle, sheep, or bison, free-range simply means that the animals cannot be held in feedlots. With respect to poultry, it means that the birds must have access to the outdoors, regardless of use, at least 51% of the time.

There is no third-party review associated with this label, and there are no restrictions on what the animals can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.


A certified organic food label does require third-party auditing, through which certain parameters must be met. Animals may not receive hormones or antibiotics unless in the case of illness, they must consume organic feed, and they must have outdoor access but may not necessarily use it.

As a stand-alone label, organic does not mean grass-fed or naturally fed. Corn, soy, and grains can be used as feed as long as they are organic. The certification process is extensive and costly, and therefore, some very reputable smaller farms have difficulty affording it.

Naturally Raised

This label is a United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) verified term that simply means that the animals were raised without growth promoters or unnecessary antibiotics. There are no specifications regarding welfare or diet associated with this food label.

No Added Hormones

This is another unregulated and, in some cases, purposely misleading label. With respect to cattle and sheep (lamb), “added hormones” is referring specifically to growth promoters. Antibiotics and other medications that may promote increases in the production of certain hormones may still be permitted.


There is no federal inspection or oversight associated with this food label either. It is intended to suggest that the animal feed was free of any animal by-products. Corn, soy, and grains would obviously qualify, as would some other low-quality feed. Chickens are not vegetarians, so this label on chicken or eggs is a good indicator that the chickens were not eating their natural diet.


The terms “natural” or “minimally processed” have the same meaning and are, in essence, simply marketing labels. Eggs and all unseasoned or uncured cuts of meat qualify as minimally processed and free of flavorings or chemicals.

Animal Welfare Food Labels

For the most part, the healthiest products come from the most humane and ethical sources, but there can be exceptions. In addition to food labels that highlight what the animals ate and, to some degree, how much space they had access to, there is an entirely separate set of labels that outline the manner in which the animals were raised.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has outlined the differences associated with each of the labels on its website and recommends only the three certifications listed below. The ASPCA also offers a ShopKind helpline for those wanting more information and help to find welfare-certified products in their area.

Similar to “Certified Organic,” the certification process for animal welfare food labels can be extensive and costly. The presence of these labels on products is a fantastic way to confirm that the animals were treated ethically, however, there are some very reputable small farms that simply can’t afford the certification process. With a little due diligence, you can find local farms or online meat suppliers dedicated to ethical practices.

Certified Humane Food Label
Animal Welfare Certified Food label

Best Meat Delivery Services

I recently moved to a city of approximately forty thousand people with an abundance of local agriculture. I have been able to find 100% grass-fed, grass-finished ground beef in my local supermarkets, but I haven’t had much luck locating other cuts of beef and/or organ meats of this same quality or pasture-raised pork or poultry.

Through my wife’s work, I have been able to connect with a local beef rancher and have gotten some additional cuts through him, but I have had to expand my search for quality pork, bison, poultry, and game meats.

I have researched and used several different meat delivery services, and I believe US Wellness Meats, Grass Root’s Farmer’s Cooperative, Farm Foods Market, and Force of Nature Meats offer the highest quality and best selection of products.

Choosing animal-based products from high-quality humane sources is extremely important, not just for our own personal health but also for the welfare of the animals and the environment.

By supporting ethically responsible sources, we have the power to raise the standard by which our food is produced. Where do you buy your meat? Please consider sharing your experience by commenting below in order to help others live a fit keto lifestyle.

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