Decoding the foodie codes

GMO? HFCS? Dirty Dozen? Confused by all of the jargon? You’re not alone.

Confused by all of the jargon? You’re not alone. Even the Food and Drug Administration isn’t sure what “natural” means since many foods have been processed in some way and are no longer the “product of the earth.”

In a bid for more transparency at the grocery store, we researched the meanings of common terms so you know what you’re buying.



On some nonorganic dairy and meat farms, animals live in crowded conditions that make them prone to health problems. To maintain herd health, some farmers will treat them to a regular regiment of preventative antibiotics.

According to Stonyfield, 40% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are given to farm animals.


Artificial hormones

Some nonorganic dairy and meat farmers regularly inject their animals with artificial growth hormones to boost milk production, enhance breeding and make them bulk up faster. They are prohibited in the European Union and many other countries, but they are legal in the U.S.


Cage-free eggs

Hens laying eggs labeled cage free are usually inside barns and are not generally given access to the outdoors. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted, according to the Humane Society.


‘Clean Fifteen’

Nearly two-thirds of the 3,015 produce samples tested by the USDA in 2013 contained pesticide residues. The Environmental Working Group singles out a list every year with the lowest pesticide loads, the “clean fifteen.” This year, it is comprised of avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes.


Conventionally grown

Farmers whose food is labeled conventionally grown use fertilizer and pesticides to control weeds and pests, remnants of which are often found on fruits and vegetables.


‘Dirty Dozen’

The Environmental Working Group also singles out a list every year with the highest pesticide loads, which has become known as the “dirty dozen.” This year, it is comprised of apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes.


Free-range eggs

Hens must have access to the outdoors, but there are no restrictions on the type or duration of access. Beak cutting and forced molting are permitted.


Free-range meat and poultry

The animals must have access to the outside.



A genetically modified organism is an organism or microorganism whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering. Unlike cross breeding or hybridization — both of which involve related species and can happen in nature — genetic engineering breaches naturally occurring barriers between species to produce something that could not exist with human intervention. (For example, strawberries injected with fish genes to protect them from freezing).


High-fructose corn syrup

Derived from corn syrup to which enzymes have been added, artificially changing some of the glucose to fructose and making it sweeter than corn syrup and regular table sugar. High-fructose corn syrup can be as high as 90% fructose and is only commonly available to food manufacturers. (It is cheaper than regular sugar).



Any food that does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances can define itself as natural, according to the FDA. But watchdog groups point out that so-called natural food products often contain hormones, antibiotics and heavily processed ingredients. (For example, the FDA calls high-fructose corn syrup “natural”).



The most heavily regulated official food system. When the USDA labels something as organic it means there are no toxic synthetic pesticides, toxic synthetic herbicides or chemical NPK fertilizers used in producing the food and no antibiotics or growth hormones given to animals. 

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