What The Labels On Your Milk Mean, And What They Don't

Mar 12, 2015

Most trips to the grocery store include grabbing a quart of milk, and it’s hard to find a quart of milk these days that isn’t proudly displaying some confusing labels. Few of these labels explain what they really mean, but don’t worry – this post is here prevent udder confusion.

  • Label: Grass-Fed

USDA Guideline"Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season."

What It Means: This label is less about what cattle are fed than about what they aren’t. Dr. Atkins would be proud: their diets are grain free.

What It Doesn’t Mean: This label doesn’t mean that cattle only ate grass. Milk, hay, leafy plants and mineral supplements may be included in their diets, as well as grain crops in their vegetative state. While “grass-fed” may seem to imply that the cows are always outdoors and free-roaming, that isn’t exactly the case – the USDA definition only states that cattle “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” This label also doesn’t restrict the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

Verified by: The USDA offers a definition of grass-fed, but producers can still use the “grass-fed” label without verification from USDA. Grass-fed products that have been verified by the USDA bear a “USDA Process Verified” label. The American Grassfed Association, a nonprofit organization, has developed a stricter set of requirements and manages its own label, “American Grassfed.”

  • Label: ``From cows not treated with rBST/rBGH''

USDA Guideline: “The producer of a product labeled with rbST claims should be able to demonstrate that all milk-derived ingredients in the product are from cows not treated with rbST.”

What It Means: This label refers to recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is used to increase milk production. Producers using this label claim to have not administered these hormones to their dairy cows.

What It Doesn’t Mean: This label doesn’t mean that the milk doesn’t have hormones. BGH (or BST) is a hormone that cattle naturally produce which is structurally similar or even identical to synthesized rBGH hormones. Use of the genetically-engineered rBGH has sparked health concerns among some consumers, but the FDA has declared it safe for use. According to the USDA there are no “measurable compositional differences between milk from cows that receive supplemental bST and milk from cows that do not”. Other groups, such as the American Cancer Society, call the current research inconclusive, and its use is not permitted in the European Union and Canada. Like all animals, dairy cows naturally produce a number of other hormones, including estrogen.

Verified by: Labeling for rBST and rBGH is overseen by the USDA. To obtain USDA Process Verified certification, producers must submit documentation of farming practices, feeding plans and related information to the USDA that shows they are in compliance with the labeling claim. Products with a USDA Organic label, which is verified by third-party auditors, are not allowed to use rBGH.

  • Label: No Antibiotics/Antibiotic Free

FDA Guideline“labels are truthful and not misleading”

What It Means: According to the FDA, there are no specific requirements regarding antibiotic-free labeling on milk, so this label falls under their general ‘truthful and not misleading’ requirements.

What It Doesn’t Mean: This label doesn’t mean that cattle haven’t received hormones or supplements other than antibiotics. And though the label implies that unlabeled milk does contain antibiotics, according to the National Dairy Council, all milk is tested for antibiotics and other drug residues before being processed. Any milk, whether this label is attached to it or not, that tests positive for antibiotics is discarded.

Verified by: Milk labeling is handled by the FDA.

  • Label: Organic

USDA Guideline: "The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.”

What It Means: The USDA Organic label includes many of the labels we’ve already discussed – no added hormones, no antibiotics, access to the outdoors – and adds a few of its own. The USDA National Organic Program goes into great detail specifying the rules for certification and the exceptions to those rules.

What It Doesn’t Mean: The USDA Organic label doesn’t mean that no drugs, pesticide residues, or other synthetic substances can be found in the product. There are exceptions to many of the types of prohibited substances, and unless the product is labeled “100% Organic” it could contain small amounts of non-organic ingredients.

Verified by: Organic certification is provided by a number of approved certifying agencies. These agencies, authorized by the USDA, give producers on-site inspections each year to verify that they’re following the organic standards established by the USDA.

  • Label: Natural

FDA Guideline: The FDA has not defined the term ‘natural’, but does not object to its use on products if “the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances”.

What It Means: This label suggests that the food has no additives or synthetic substances, but remains pretty vague.

What It Doesn’t Mean: This label doesn’t mean that milk hasn’t been processed. Most dairy products are pasteurized, or heated to kill off microorganisms, and many have been mechanically separated and homogenized to prevent them from separating. This label doesn’t imply anything about the way an animal was raised or how it was fed.

What other labels should we look at? What food claims can we decode? Click here to tell us what to look at next.