What's in a Label?

Posted Friday, Nov 18, 2016

    There can be a lot of labels to keep track of when buying food. So many that sometimes it gets hard to keep everything straight! Here’s a few of the labels you might find on our products, what they mean, and why they matter:


    Perhaps the most common label you'll find in our store! This is a method of agricultural production that aims to produce in a more natural way, while respecting the natural environment. What primarily sets organic farming apart from conventional farming is that no synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), or growth hormones are permitted in organics. 

    In order to be labelled ‘organic,’ products must be certified organic by an approved regulating body. The idea of organic agriculture has been around since the 1920’s, and continues to develop under various agricultural organizations today.

    Within organic farming there is a focus on preserving biodiversity, promoting animal welfare, preserving soil integrity, and preserving ecological standards. Fertilizers of organic origin such as compost, manure, or bone meal are used for crop production, and techniques such as crop rotation and companion planting are encouraged. 

    While synthetic substances are strictly limited, naturally occurring pesticides can be used - at the discretion of the regulating body. Biological pest control is encouraged as a natural alternative to pesticides and herbicides. 

      More information on organic farming here in Alberta can be found here.


    Biodynamic agriculture was the first of the organic agriculture movements. It was developed in the 1920’s basing its system on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner's philosophy is also the basis for the Waldorf education system.

    Soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care are considered ecologically interrelated within biodynamics, and the aim is to work with nature, using natural relationships to enhance agriculture. 

    Biodynamic agriculture is governed primarily by Demeter International which certifies farms that meet international biodynamic standards.  

    There are many similarities between organic and biodynamic farming: no synthetic pesticides or herbicides are permitted, and the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, or GMO’s are also prohibited.  

    Biodynamics must also foster and enhance the soil fertility, biodiversity, and plant and animal health of the farm. Within biodynamic philosophy, the farm itself is thought of as a single, self-sustaining organism. 

    There are also important astrological, spiritual, and mystical aspects of biodynamics. 

     You can learn more about biodynamic farming through one of our favourite local farms, Blue Mountain Biodynamics, here


    A product will be labelled ‘non-GMO’ or state ‘GMO Free’ if it does not contain any genetically modified ingredients. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a plant, animal, or microorganism whose “genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods (also called gene splicing), gene modification or transgenic technology.” 

    GMO’s are newly created genomes that could not exist naturally or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Many products are labelled non-GMO by the non-GMO Project, a third-party verification organization “dedicated to building and protecting a non-GMO food supply.”

    If a product is certified organic or biodynamic, it is also non-GMO. While there are several crops that are at high risk for being genetically modified, there are also many more that are still likely non-GMO even if non-organic. You can find a list of the most common offenders here.

Fair Trade

    Fair Trade focuses on providing producers in developing countries the ability to receive better trading conditions while promoting sustainability. It aims to move away from the current system of trade which it perceives as exploitive, toward a sustainable, more equitable world market. 

    Fair Trade certifiers typically focus on commodities or products exported from developing countries into developed countries such as fruit, coffee, tea, or chocolate.


   A product is considered vegan only if it does not contain any animal products - including meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal-derived foodstuffs. A vegan product will not include any animal-derived ingredients, while a vegetarian product can include eggs and dairy. 

    Vegan products for many animal-derived foods such as burgers, milk, or cheese have been created using meat or dairy alternatives, and will often be labelled ‘vegan’ near the products ingredients.


    Those that adhere to a raw food diet believe that you receive greater health benefits from food that is processed as minimally as possible, i.e. still ‘raw.’ Simply put, raw food is uncooked food - usually food that has not been heated above 48 degrees centigrade. 

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency states that honey, for example, can be considered ‘raw’ only “when it has not undergone any treatment or process such as heat treatment (other than minimal heating used for the purpose of extraction) or filtering.”

    Many products are unable to be considered ‘raw’ because they are heated for safety purposes. Milk is pasteurized, for example, and thus not considered raw. Raw milk is currently illegal in Canada. Raw cheese (cheese made from raw milk), on the other hand, is allowed - Health Canada states raw cheese is considered safer than raw milk because the processes of producing cheese eliminates many of the pathogens found in raw milk.  

     ‘Living food’ or ‘live food’ are other terms that can often be used interchangeably with ‘raw food.’

 Wild Harvested or Wildcrafted

    As the name suggests, wild harvested food is simply food that has been harvested from their natural habitat. It often applies to uncultivated plants such as seaweed, certain herbs, and certain species of mushrooms. 


    If a product is labelled ‘gluten-free’ it means that gluten levels are less than 20 parts per million - a level Health Canada considers safe even for those with celiac disease. This includes any grains consisting of gluten, such as any variety of wheat, rye, barley, and triticale, as well as any derivatives of these grains, such as malt, or brewer’s yeast.  

    Those with gluten-sensitivities often worry about cross contamination. This can occur when a food that is normally gluten-free comes in contact with gluten during processing steps or transport (Oats being a typical example of this). If a product is labelled ‘gluten-free,’ you do not have to worry about cross-contamination. Health Canada has set out strict guidelines for the use of the ‘gluten-free’ label that includes accidental contamination. You can find the other criteria here.


    You’ll see this label on signs in our Produce department. Some of the local produce we carry is not certified organic - a costly endeavour for a small farmer - but still follows the guidelines of organic agriculture. This means no chemical spraying: no pesticides, and no herbicides. Instead, machines or hand-picking are used to control weeds, and beneficial insects or companion planting are used to control pests. 

     We regularly visit the local farms we deal with. The farmer is often the person dropping off his or her delivery and then staying for a chat. We’ve built relationships with these farms - several have been supplying the store for a decade or more! When we label something ‘spray-free,’ you can trust it.

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Seafood can be considered Ocean Wise if it is sustainably harvested or farmed.

Ocean Wise

    The Ocean Wise symbol was created by the Vancouver Aquarium in 2005 in order to provide consumers with a simple way to choose sustainable seafood. An Ocean Wise seafood product assures it is the best choice for the sustainability of that species, and the health of the worlds oceans. 

    Sustainable seafood is defined as “species that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of that species, as well as the greater marine ecosystem.” 

    A specific species becomes Ocean Wise recommended if it is 1) abundant and resilient to fishing pressures, 2) well managed, 3) harvested in a method that ensures limited bycatch on non-target and endangered species, and 4) harvested in ways that limit damage to marine or aquatic habitats.

Animal Welfare Approved

    Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) is a “food label for meat and dairy products that come from farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.” The program began in 2006 with the aim of providing consumers with an identifiable option for meat, eggs, and dairy products that came from animals treated humanely, with extra focus placed on their well-being, and the health of the surrounding environment. 

    The AWA program aims to move beyond the intensive raising of livestock that occurs with indoor confinement and feedlots that harms not only animal welfare, but also human health and the environment, toward a more intrinsic, sustainable food system. 

    There aren't many AWA ranchers in Canada yet, but we do carry AWA beef and chicken from TK Ranch 

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A view of the barn at Winter's Farm. Here, the free-range turkeys have room to move around and free access to the outdoors.

Free Range vs Free Run

    You’ll often see ‘Free Range’ or ‘Free Run’ written on eggs or poultry. The difference is quite simple. Free run poultry are raised in an open concept barn with no cages, and hens have access to nest boxes and perches. Free range chickens or turkeys are raised in the same set-up, but they have access to the outdoors as well. 

    Both categories are cage-free, meaning chickens or turkeys are never housed in cages like they are in conventional set-ups. They are able move around the barn freely, engaging with their group socially and getting exercise. 

 Grass Fed vs Grass Finished

    You’ll often find the label ‘grass fed’ or ‘grass finished’ on meat products from ruminant livestock such as sheep, cattle, or bison. Both labels seem to suggest the same thing, although because the definition of grass-fed is not regulated in Canada, ranchers are able to apply their own understanding to ‘grass fed.’ 

    At Sunnyside Natural Market, the division between grass-fed and grass-finished is simple: if we label a product 'grass-finished,' the animal has spent it’s entire life grazing, foraging, and fattening up on grass. If a product is merely ‘grass-fed,’ the animal spent most of it’s life grazing but was fattened up with a grain ration before slaughter. This period of fattening up is called ‘finishing’ in the livestock industry.

    There are many reasons farmers choose to grain-finish or grass-finish their livestock, including the differences in cost, meat texture, nutritional value, and animal welfare concerns related to each method. 

     As you might imagine, raising grass-finished livestock can be very difficult with the long, cold winters here in Alberta. One of our favourite ranches, TK Ranch, wrote an excellent blog on this subject, and you can find it here.

Pasture Raised

    For meat that doesn’t come from grass-eating ruminants, like poultry and pork, it’s best to look for a ‘pasture-raised’ label. This means the animal was raised outdoors, on the pasture. Pasture raised animals are often raised with the welfare of the animal in mind. Sunworks Farm supplies us with organic pasture-raised chicken certified humane by the SPCA. Their chickens are moved regularly to fresh pasture where they can exhibit natural behaviours like scratching, dustbathing, as well as hunt for bugs and worms. 

    Beyond the ethical motives for pasture raised meat, many customers have also commented on the taste difference between an animal that has lived a more natural life when compared one that has been raised in the conventional system. 

    You can find out more about Sunworks Farm here.

Hailey Carr Posted Nov 18, 2016