Dairy labels can be confusing. If you’ve been to the dairy aisle in the supermarket lately, you’ve no doubt been overwhelmed by an endless array of product labels claiming “Organic” “Fortified” “All Natural” “Hormone-free.”
We all want to feel good about the purchases we make at our local grocery stores and big-box chains — and we all want to have options so that we can buy the product that best fits our individual and family needs. The truth is, ALL milk — organic, regular or rbST-free — is good nutritious milk.
The milk you’ve likely been buying for years does not contain any claims about how the milk was produced on the farm.
But, how can we differentiate all the claims made on dairy labels? And what do the claims really tell us?
Use the “Label Translator” below to better understand what all the dairy labels mean so that you can make an informed decision the next time you’re in the dairy aisle.
Free-grazing — This is a voluntary label used by producers who want to differentiate their products by referring to their cattle management program. There are no regulations around how long dairy cows should be able to “free-graze” on pasture so there is little meaning behind this claim. This phrase is most often used by organic dairy farmers who utilize free-grazing as a means to reduce feed costs.1
From cows not treated (supplemented) with rbST — This is a voluntary label used by companies who want to highlight that their dairy products were made from cows not supplemented with rbST. There is currently no way to analytically differentiate between naturally occurring bST and recombinant bST (rbST) in milk, nor are there any measurable compositional differences between milk from cows that receive supplemental bST and milk from cows that do not. There is currently no federal law, but there is federal guidance2, concerning rbST labels, and regulations differ from state to state.
Hormone-free — Though this language may be used to label dairy products, the claim is misleading since all dairy products contain hormones — whether they are naturally occurring or not. In fact, the FDA requires that all commercially available fluid milk sold in the United States must be fortified with Vitamin D — which is a steroid hormone.
No hormones added — See “Made without the use of synthetic (growth) hormones”. This label may also be misleading because the FDA requires that all commercially available fluid milk sold in the United States must be fortified with Vitamin D — which is a steroid hormone.
Made without the use of synthetic or artificial hormones — All milk has hormones in it, including bovine somatotropin (bST). However, milk that has been made without the use of synthetic hormones means the cows that produced it have not been supplemented with additional products such as rbST. This label is also misleading because it does not refer to the use of other safe FDA-approved supplements that might be used on the dairy farm.
Low fat, reduced fat, skim, 1%, 2%, whole and more — These claims refer to the fat and protein nutrient content reductions that have been made in the dairy products that you purchase.3 In 1998, the FDA changed reduced fat dairy product labeling requirements to reflect the following:
2% — reduced fat or less fat, but not low fat
1% — low fat or little fat
Skim — fat-free, zero-fat, or no-fat4
Made without the use of (toxic) pesticides — All pesticides (including agricultural) are regulated by state and federal laws to protect the user and consumer. While many farmers utilize pesticides to keep flies, mites and lice off of grazing cattle, or to control those pests in his crops, those that choose not to use these products, or use organic pesticides often use this language on their milk and dairy products. This term is not regulated by any national standards, and generally means that the food was grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.5
Natural or All Natural or Naturally Produced — The term “natural” is a USDA approved term most commonly used for meats and poultry, however, “natural” and “all natural” terms apply to fluid milk products as well. According to the FDA, these terms may be used on fluid milk products as long as they don’t contain any artificial ingredients or added colors and flavors. In cheese manufacturing, regular production methods must be used in order for products to be labeled “natural”. No processed cheese, cheese food or cheese spread may be associated with “natural” language.6
Organic — Products labeled “100% organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients and processing aids (excluding water and salt), while products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).7 These foods also cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge, cannot be genetically modified and cannot be irradiated. Similarly, organically grown meat animals and poultry must be given organically grown feed and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics. Animals must have access to the outdoors and certain animals must even have access to pasture.8 All organic foods must meet strict government standards as established by the USDA.
rBGH-free — rBGH stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone, a term often used for recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). See “From cows not treated with rbST” for a definition of rbGH-free.
rbST-free — rbST stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin. See “From cows not treated (supplemented) with rbST” for a definition of rbST-free.