You may have seen my previous post about food claims when it comes to sugar, calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. However, I have to say that this list is closer to my heart, especially as an animal lover and advocate for non-GMO, organic foods.
Food labels with the words “free range,” “grass fed,” “natural” and organic” are everywhere these days. But what do these claims actually mean? Understanding these terms are a great way to educate yourself about where your food comes from and how it was produced.
“Antibiotic-free” means 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.”
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.
“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 are able to move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors. This term is very similar to “grass-fed,” though the term “pasture-raised” indicates more clearly that the animal was raised outdoors on pasture.
Animals raised on a grain diet are labeled “grain-fed.” Check the label for a “100% vegetarian diet” claim to ensure the animals were given feed containing no animal by-products.
This means the animals were fed grass, their natural diet, rather than grains. In addition to being more humane, grass-fed meat is more lean 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 – although they may 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.”
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 they 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.
The USDA has prohibited use of the term “hormone-free,” but animals that were 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.
Currently, no standards exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry. USDA guidelines state that “natural” meat and poultry products can only undergo minimal processing and cannot contain artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, “natural” foods are not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics.
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.
Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is a genetically engineered growth hormone that is 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 never received injections of this hormone. Organic milk is rBGH free.
Foods labeled “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 or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.
The “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.
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, 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.
All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines (verified by a USDAapproved 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 genetically modified organisms 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 the processing of organic products.
- Keep records of all operations.
If a product contains the “USDA Organic” seal, it means that 95 to 100% of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70 to 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.
Information drawn from Institute for Integrative Nutrition materials. For more information, visit http://www.sustainabletable.org/.