Demystifying Confusing Food Labels
Does going to the grocery store ever feel like a big, confusing quiz in label reading? Gluten free? Hormone free? Organic? Grass-fed? I was in the poultry and meat section over the weekend and my head was spinning. I was in that aisle for a solid 20 minutes trying to choose the best protein!
In the quest to buy good quality meat and poultry, what’s important to consider and what is not?
To address these questions and make your trips to the grocery store less of a complicated riddle, I’ve compiled information on some of the most common food labels for you. Even if you aren't a meat eater, this is a great guide to help you become a more conscious consumer in general.
Watch the video below or read on to demystify confusing food labels.
Here are some simple definitions of the most common food labels that I see in the meat and poultry aisle to help demystifying your shopping experience:
Currently, no standards exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines state that “natural” meat and poultry products can only undergo minimal processing and can’t contain artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, natural foods aren’t necessarily sustainable, organic, or free of hormones and antibiotics. So technically the meat that you buy that has seasoning or marinade on it isn’t natural and it doesn’t mean much.
Beyond requiring that producers include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural on each product, the label isn't regulated at all.
“Antibiotic-free” means that an animal wasn’t given antibiotics during its lifetime. For producers to use this claim, the animals cannot be administered antibiotics in their feed, water, or by injections. Other phrases to indicate the same thing include “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics.”
“Hormone-free” means that the animals were raised without hormones or steroids. Hormones are only approved for use in beef cattle and sheep raising. They are not approved for use in poultry, pork or veal.
So you won’t actually see the phrases “no hormones administered” on poultry, pork, or veal, unless it's immediately followed by the statement, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry (or pork, veal, or exotic, non-amenable meat products).” For beef, it’s a good idea to ensure that the meat is hormone-free. The extensive use of hormones in meat and dairy may increase the risk of cancer in humans and result in higher rates of infection in animals.
The diets of cattle fed grass vs. grain changes the nutrients and fats that you get from eating each type of beef. Technically, the term “grass-fed” means that animals were fed grass, which is their natural diet, rather than grains. Grass-fed animals are not fed grain, animal by-products, synthetic hormones (to promote growth), or antibiotics (to prevent disease).
From an animal welfare standpoint, grass-fed animals are treated better and are happier and healthier animals. Additionally, eating grass-fed meat usually means supporting smaller, local farms and thereby reducing fuel costs necessary to get the meat to you. By avoiding grains in any part of your personal food chain, you avoid supporting large factory farms 
In addition to being more humane, some research shows that grass-fed meat is leaner and lower in fat than grain-fed meat . Additionally, grass-fed meat contains approximately four times more healthy omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed meat and fewer omega-6 fatty acids, so the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in grass-fed meat is approximately 1:3 (it’s closer to 1:20 in grain-fed meat) . Meat and dairy from grass-fed cows are great sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is an important anti-inflammatory fatty acid .
The grass-fed label, however, doesn’t mean that the animal necessarily ate grass its entire life. Even more confusing, some grass-fed cattle are “grain-finished”, which means that they ate grain from a feedlot prior to slaughter. The label is regulated by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS). In 2016 the FSIS clarified stipulations of the grass-fed label and deemed that the term grass-fed must meet a 100% grass-fed standard.
From what I've found, the guidance is not perfect and will still require scrutiny as to what you’re actually purchasing, but it’s becoming more well-regulated. The standard to look for on the label is "100% grass-fed." It’s important to note that grass-fed is not the same thing as organic. Organic meat can come from grain-fed cows, as long as the grain was organic. Some beef is both organic and grass-fed, but they’re not necessarily the same thing!
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows:
“Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards” .
All organic farms and products must meet the following guidelines:
- Not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides
- Prohibit the use of GMOs
- Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation practices
- Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock
- Not use antibiotics or hormones
- Provide animals with 100% organic feed
Organic and sustainable farming practices are better for the environment, and many can lead to a better quality of life for animals as well. The organic label is by far the most all-encompassing and well-regulated government label and I feel that organic or grass-fed beef make the best choices for meat. As previously stated, organic meat is not the same as grass-fed (although certified grass-fed is organic, it’s not necessarily true the other way around). The gold standard would be 100% grass fed organic meat.
“Cage-free” means that the birds were raised out of cages. What this doesn’t tell us is whether the birds were raised outdoors on pasture or indoors in overcrowded conditions.
“Free-range” and “free-roaming” on egg and poultry labels can be used as long as producers allow the birds some access to the outdoors. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic-free, or that the animals spent the majority of their time outdoors. It just means that there is some access to the outdoors allowed. These claims are determined by the USDA, but aren’t verified by third-party inspectors.
“Pasture-raised” indicates that the animal was raised on a pasture where it was able to eat nutritious grass and other plants, rather than being fed grain in a feedlot or barn. Pasturing livestock and poultry is a traditional farming technique that allows animals to be raised in a humane manner where they're able to move around freely.
Pasture-raised eggs are the best choice. These eggs are more expensive, so you just have to weigh the benefits vs. the cost here. Buying eggs from your local farmers market or through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box can be a fresher, more affordable option!
So to sum up, the gold standard choices for eggs is pasture-raised and for meat it's organic, grass-fed, or from a local farmer whose practices you're aware of. That being said, organic food can often cost more, driving us to choose the non-organic or conventionally produced kinds to get more bang for our buck. So do the best that you can, with the knowledge you have, and within your own budget. I highly recommend participating in a CSA or meat share from a local farmer!
Here's more information about the CSA that I use here in Seattle >>
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