Decoding Food Labels.
Organic? Pastured-raised? GMO-free, non-GMO, or no GMOs? rBGH-free or rBST-free? WTF? What does it all mean? Words like free-range, grass-fed, natural and organic seem to be everywhere these days. You see them on your egg cartons (cage free!!!!) or on signs in your grocery store (local!!!) and even on menus. I've been getting a lot of questions recently about what it all means and what people should be eating! I can't tell you what's best for your family (that's going to depend on your priorities and budget), BUT I can provide you with everything I know on the topic. Knowing what a food claim truly means is the best way to take control of what you are eating. So here it goes.
Antibiotic-freemeans that an animal was not given antibiotics during its lifetime. Other phrases to indicate the same approach include “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics.”
Cage-free means that the birds are raised without cages. What this doesn’t explain is whether the birds were raised outdoors on pasture or if they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions. If you are looking to buy eggs, poultry, or meat that was raised outdoors, look for a label that says “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”
Fair trade A fair trade label means that farmers and workers, often in developing countries, have received a fair wage and worked in acceptable conditions while growing and packaging the product. Free-range The use of the terms free-range or free-roaming are only defined by the USDA for egg and poultry production. The label can be used as long as the producers allow the birds access to the outdoors so that they can engage in natural behaviors. It does not necessarily mean that the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic-free or that the animals spent the majority of their time outdoors. Claims are defined by the USDA but are not verified by third-party inspectors.
GMO-free, non-GMO, or no GMOs Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. Products can be labeled GMO-free if they are produced without being genetically engineered through the use of GMOs.
Grain-fed Animals raised on a grain diet are labeled grain-fed. Check the label for a claim of a “100% vegetarian diet” to ensure that the animals were given feed containing no animal by-products. Grass-fed This means the animals were fed grass, their natural diet, rather than grains. In addition to being more humane, grass-fed meat is leaner and lower in fat and calories than grain-fed meat. Grass-fed animals are not fed grain, animal by-products, synthetic hormones, or antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease; they may, however, have been given antibiotics to treat disease. A grass-fed label doesn’t mean the animal necessarily ate grass its entire life. Some grass-fed cattle are grain finished, which means they ate grain from a feedlot prior to slaughter. Look for grass-fed and grass-finished.
Healthy Foodslabeled healthy must be low in saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Certain foods must also contain at least 10% of the following nutrients: vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber.
Heritage A heritage label describes a rare and endangered breed of livestock or crops. Heritage breeds are traditional livestock that were raised by farmers in the past, before industrial agriculture drastically reduced breed variety. These animals are prized for their rich taste and usually contain a higher fat content than commercial breeds. Production standards are not required by law, but true heritage farmers use sustainable production methods. This method of production saves animals from extinction and preserves genetic diversity.
Hormone-free The USDA has prohibited the use of the term hormone-free, but animals raised without added growth hormones can be labeled no hormones administered or no added hormones. By law, hogs and poultry cannot be given any hormones. If the meats you are buying are not clearly labeled, ask your farmer or butcher if they are free from hormones.
Humanely Raised refers to foods produced from animals that are treated kindly, are given comfortable living conditions, and are able to engage in natural behaviors. Products can also be labeled certified humane. Keep in mind that this certification still allows for practices like beak trimming.
Natural No standards currently exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines state that meat and poultry products labeled natural can only undergo minimal processing and cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, natural foods are not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics.
Nonirradiated This label means that the food has not been exposed to radiation. Meat and vegetables are sometimes irradiated (exposed to radiation energy) to kill disease-causing bacteria and reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. No thorough testing has been done to know if irradiated food is safe for human consumption.
Pasture-raised indicates that the animal was raised on a pasture where it was able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants rather than being fattened on 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. Animals can move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors. This term is very similar to grass-fed, but the term pasture-raised more clearly indicates that the animal was raised outdoors on pasture.
rBGH-free or rBST-free Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) are genetically engineered growth hormones injected into dairy cows to artificially increase their milk production. The hormone has not been properly tested for safety and is not permitted in the European Union, Canada, and some other countries. Milk labeled rBGH-free is produced by dairy cows that have never received injections of this hormone. Organic milk is rBGH free.
Organic All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines (verified by a USDA-approved independent agency): • Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for three years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license. • Prohibit the use of GMOs and irradiation. • Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation practices. • Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock. • Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals. • Sustain animals on 100% organic feed. • Avoid contamination during processing of organic products. • Keep records of all operations. If a product contains the USDA organic seal, it means that 95%–100% of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70%–95% organic ingredients can still advertise “organic ingredients” on the front of the package and products with less than 70% organic ingredients can identify them on the side panel. Organic foods prohibit the use of hydrogenation and trans fats.
Sustainable refers to foods produced and consumed within a closed-loop system. This means that any waste that would have been produced goes back into the system to nourish the growth cycle.
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Adapted from These Labels Are So Confusing! GRACE Communications Foundation. (2017). These labels are so confusing! Sustainable Table [Food Program]. Retrieved from www.sustainabletable.org/944/these-labels-are-so-confusing