What's in a Label?

Menu terms like local, sustainable and all natural are increasingly appearing on menus, but which healthy claims are valid and matter to diners?

Not too long ago, diners had modest expectations for menus. People perused them, rather than studying each ingredient in detail. Ignorance was bliss.

Such is the case no more. As local, sustainable and all-natural products continue to gain relevance, more restaurants—from fine dining to quick casual—are using these ingredients and increasingly touting their presence. Diners eat it up, poring over menus with the same scrutiny they apply to grocery labels for those feel-good buzzwords. 

But what do these labels really mean and are the products worth the typically higher costs? What’s the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished beef? Between antibiotic-free and no antibiotics administered chickens? Or an all-natural product versus an organic one? 

Confused? You’re among the masses. Other than USDA-certified organic labeling, the majority of these menu buzzwords lack regulation and standardized language. Nebulous claims can be made without ramifications. 

As a result, it’s fallen to restaurant owners and chefs to devise their own definitions. In some cases, operators create standards, educating customers while feeding them. 

How Do You Know?

Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based food watchdog organization, says that when it comes to most food labels, chefs should turn to one principle only: buyer beware. 

“People use terms like ‘grass-fed,’ ‘natural’ and ‘antibiotic free,’ with their fingers crossed behind their back, so it’s hard for consumers to know exactly what they are getting,” Kastel says.

If chefs want to offer that point of differentiation, he says, they are best served by paying extra for products labeled “organic”—a regulated term that requires meeting strict government guidelines. 

But as Frank Klein, CEO of the Asian Box restaurants based in Palo Alto, Calif., says, there are high-quality producers who can’t afford the organic certification or haven’t been in business long enough to earn one.

Instead of promising organic products, Asian Box spells out its own definition of “all natural,” pledging that its products have not been treated with antibiotics, hormones, pesticides and unnatural additives—a commitment often referred to as “never-ever.” 

“We always go back to the source to verify what’s on a label,” Klein says. “If we get pork, for example, it will have a USDA number on it. We trace it back to the producer and ask questions, ‘Tell us the heritage. Is it natural? What does it get fed?’ It’s not that we distrust anyone in the process; it’s just that if we’re making a claim, we want to make sure it’s accurate.”

Find A Niche

This trend for food labels has created an opportunity for operators to focus on unique and emerging food philosophies breaking into the mainstream. 

The fast-growing Veggie Grill restaurant group based in California, for example, adheres to a 100-percent plant-based standard, which includes a ban on meat, dairy, trans fats, honey and refined sugars. 

“We don’t beat our chests about it,” CEO Greg Dollarhyde says. “We emphasize ‘craveability’ more than anything, but we make all our vendors sign agreements. We demand a complete list of all the ingredients used in the products we order. It’s our way of ensuring everyone meets our guidelines.” 

It Will Cost You

Like any operation, concepts like Asian Box and Veggie Grill base menu prices according to their food costs. But what about restaurants considering “organic” or “never-ever” proteins, such as chicken or beef? 

Depending on commodity prices, contracts and overall orders with food distributors, costs are likely to be 10 to 30 percent more than those of regular items. But costs could be more than 150 percent greater for certain certified organic or certified sustainable proteins like seafood.

Managing food costs with higher-cost products depends on menu balance. Some operators are fine with a lower profit margin on a dish, seeing it as a point of differentiation. Others might increase the cost of a popular item to offset the loss, or simply charge more and explain the reasons to diners.

Play Detective

Often the best way to ensure that beef is grass-fed or poultry has never been treated with drugs is by doing extra homework, says Chef David Coleman of Michael’s on Naples in Long Beach, Calif. Contact the farmer or rancher raising the product or take advantage of new technologies that can trace their ingredients to the suppliers. 

HarvestMark, for instance, creates specialized labels that can be applied to clamshells, boxes or individual pieces of produce. A chef merely has to scan the label with a smartphone or type its 16-digit code into a computer to find a wealth of information about that product, including a description of the farm it came from or a video of the farmer talking about how he raised that particular product, or whether it is part of a recall. The system also allows chefs to provide feedback directly to the grower.

“Chefs and customers are both crying out for more traceability throughout the food chain,” says HarvestMark founder Elliott Grant, whose labels are placed on everything from strawberries to individual pieces of produce cultivated by small farmers in the Pacific Northwest. “We let the market tell us what they want our labels to say.” Carbon footprint information and crowdsourcing data from diners and chefs are likely to follow. 

While Datassential’s studies show a tremendous uptick in the use of terms like “hormone-free,” “grass-fed” and “sustainable,” the 2012 Eco Pulse report from the Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based communications agency, shows that labels indicating “no antibiotics or hormones” rank similarly with “organic” and “all-natural” in terms of importance for most consumers. 

As a result, many restaurant owners, like Gerry Cea of Café Prima Pasta in Miami Beach, Fla., have begun testing the waters by putting antibiotic-free chicken specials on their menu, using it to gauge consumer interest and create a dialogue about the health benefits of such products. 

“I think it’s going to work the way gluten-free has,” Cea says. “Once I started talking about the health benefits with people, they tried them and kept ordering them. People want to eat healthy. But in the end, it’s going to be how good these [products] taste that’s going to make the biggest difference.” 

Peter Gianopulos, an adjunct professor and dining critic, began paying more attention to the transparencies of food labels after spending a “vacation” working on a farm in Tennessee.


THE EAT WELL GUIDE: Farms, restaurants, bakers and butchers who ascribe to the site’s definition of “locally grown” and “sustainably raised” food. Eatwellguide.org

REAL TIME FARMS: Crowd-sourced online food-tracing system featuring farmers and food producers. Realtimefarms.com 

THE CORNUCOPIA INSTITUTE: An online  reservoir of scorecards, reports and alerts on producers and products meeting standards outlined by the organic movement. Cornucopia.org

Terms to Trust 

USDA Organic: Regulated term from the United States Department of Agriculture that ensures a product is free of synthetic fertilizers, genetic modification and toxic pesticides. Certified organic beef, poultry and dairy products are guaranteed to be free of hormones and antibiotics.

USDA Process Verified Grass-Fed: Although grass-fed does not exclude the use of antibiotics or hormones, the term ensures that animals ate grass or foraged greens for their entire lives, instead of being grain-finished in the final months before slaughter.

No Antibiotics Administered: Meat and poultry products stamped with this term ensures that no antibiotics were ever given to the animal during their lifetime. This should not be confused with “no added” hormones.


Top three descriptions consumers want to see on foods labels are:

  • No artificial flavors, colors, additives or preservatives 
  • 100 percent natural
  • No antibiotics or hormones

Terms Requiring Investigation 

Free Range: The term merely denotes that an animal has access to the outdoors for a portion of the day. However, length of time outdoors and the type of environment it had access to can vary greatly.

Natural: According to the Food and Drug Administration, the term can be used if an item is free of added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. That says nothing about how an animal was raised and leaves a host of additives that can be added to a product.

Antibiotic Free: The USDA says it doesn’t authorize the use of the term “antibiotic free,” so the label has no specific meaning. Chefs should also be wary of the phrase “no antibiotic residues,” which implies antibiotic levels are below a certain threshold.

Never-Ever: Often connected to describing natural, this is an unregulated term for proteins that have never been given antibiotics or hormones.