Decoding Food Labels: Organic, No Antibiotics and More

Aug 20, 2018
woman at the grocery store

Clients and consumers often turn to health professionals for information about their food choices – with many questions going far beyond the nutritional value of a food or food group. Until recently, most food labels provided the same information: the nutritional value of a food. That classic nutrition facts label is still your client’s best bet in comparing one product to another, as it tells exactly which nutrients and how much of those nutrients are included. Label claims, on the other hand, tell us less. Listed on the front, they usually claim a health benefit or boast about a nutrient. Recently, many brands have started including claims related to how the food was grown or raised, produced and processed. But does that information help the consumer or just add to the growing confusion around making healthful food choices? 

Without context, it may not be clear to the consumer what, if anything, a label claim means for their health. It’s hard to tell what’s true and substantiated, which claims are regulated and what’s just hype. To help provide clarity, we’ve rounded up a few of the more common claims you may see on your gallon of milk. 


What it means: Dairy foods are labeled “USDA Organic” only if they meet all the criteria of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program – including giving cows access to pasture no less than 120 days a year and ensuring 30 percent of a cow’s feed comes from pasture grazing.

What’s important: Conventional and organic milk share a common goal: happy and healthy cows producing nutritious milk. There’s a slight difference between the nutritional profiles of organic and conventional milk, but not enough for a meaningful nutritional benefit. Rest assured, in your glass of milk – organic or conventional – you have the nine essential nutrients.

rBGH-Free or rBST-Free

What it means: These labels, regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are used on dairy products to tell you that the cows were not treated with the hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) – also called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) – for increasing milk production.

What’s important: Brands using this label are also required to include the statement, “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows.” Keep in mind that hormones are naturally present in all foods, whether plant or animal, and are broken down during digestion. Both conventional and organic milk naturally contain tiny amounts of hormones – an extremely low amount relative to the amount our bodies naturally produce.

No Antibiotics (or Raised Without Antibiotics)

What it means: This claim (when used on meat, poultry and eggs) is regulated by the USDA and means that the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics. When it comes to milk, there is not a specific regulation for antibiotic-free milk labeling, so this claim falls under the FDA’s guideline that “labels are truthful and not misleading.”

What’s important: Animals can get sick, and often the ethical thing to do is to treat them with an antibiotic, just as we’d treat a sick child with an antibiotic if he/she has an ear infection. In dairy farming, both organic and conventional farmers treat sick cows with the same antibiotics under the close supervision of a veterinarian. On a conventional farm, the cow is taken from the milking herd for treatment and is not returned to the herd until her milk tests free of antibiotics. On an organic farm, that cow permanently leaves the herd. All milk is tested for antibiotics before processing, and if drug residues are found, it is immediately disposed of. Regardless of whether or not milk has an “antibiotic-free” label claim, all milk is antibiotic-free.


What it means: The “local food” movement refers to buying food that is produced and sold close to where you reside. This movement is connected to the broader philosophy of nutrition sustainability and supporting local farmers and the local economy. How far your food travels may influence which farm your dollar supports. 

What’s important: No formal definition or regulated claim exists for the term “local.” Dairy may be an exception, though: Many dairy farmers are local, located close to or just a few hours from your market. Milk moves from local farms to local processors and into grocery stores within just 48 hours.

Don’t Be Fooled

Keep in mind that just because one product boasts a claim that others don’t, it doesn’t mean other products can’t make the same claim. Example: “Antibiotic-free” labels on one brand of milk shouldn’t imply that other milks have antibiotics – because in fact, no milk contains antibiotics. 

Marketing is tricky, and we’ve got to be smart as health professionals. Learn more about milk’s journey from farm to fridge here.