Hi again! This month I wanted to delve into a topic that can get really confusing, even for the most well-meaning food shoppers: food label claims. I’m a big proponent of reading the labels of everything you buy. It’s important to get familiar with ingredients, and how else will you know what you’re eating? (Note: in my personal opinion, it’s the ingredient list that is important, not the nutrition facts. If you’re eating whole, minimally processed foods, with a small number of ingredients, all of which you can at least pronounce, you won’t really have to worry so much about the calories and whatnot. Anyway, I digress…) Unfortunately, food manufacturers like to put tricky terms on food labels that can be confusing and misleading, so I wanted to break down some of the more common ones, to help you truly understand what you’re buying and eating.
Let’s start with two terms that are extremely vague, but still fool many– natural and healthy. The term “natural” is on everything nowadays, because big food manufacturers are catching on to the fact that people are becoming more and more conscious about what they’re eating. The truth is, NO standards currently exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products, and even “natural” foods are not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones or antibiotics. Foods labeled “healthy” must simply be low in saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. One of my favorite “natural” food claims is Cheetos Simply Natural White Cheddar Puffs. (LOL.) A simple Google images search will show you many other laughable label claims. The point is, take these terms with a grain of low-sodium salt. (Kidding.)
Organic is another frequently seen term. To be labeled organic, farms and products must meet a number of guidelines, which must be verified by a USDA (US Department of Agriculture) approved independent agency. These guidelines include things like abstaining from the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, GMOs, (genetically modified organisms) and antibiotic and hormone use in animals. Here’s the catch–products with less than 70% organic ingredients can still advertise as organic, as long as it’s on the side panel.
The five other terms we’re going to cover refer specifically to meat, poultry, and eggs. The term cage-free, like it says, means that the birds are raised without cages. What it doesn’t explain is whether the birds were raised outdoors, or indoors in overcrowded conditions. Similarly, the label free-range (or free-roaming) can be used as long as the birds are allowed some access to the outdoors so they can engage in natural behaviors. Again though, it does not necessarily mean that the products are cruelty, or antibiotic-free, or that the animals spent the majority of their time outside. These claims are defined by the USDA, but are not verified by third-party inspectors.
So what about what the animals are fed? When it comes to poultry and eggs, you’ll see most packaging touting the labels grain-fed or 100% vegetarian diet. Here’s the thing. Birds aren’t vegetarian. Their normal diets contain a whole host of things, such as seeds, bugs and grubs. “100% vegetarian diet” could be referring to the fact that the birds weren’t fed any animal by-products, which is a good thing, but what you really want to look for is the label pastured (which we’ll get to in a moment.)
“Grain-fed” is also not an ideal thing when it comes to other meat. Grain is not the natural diet of livestock, grass is, so one of the labels you do want to look for when buying meat is grass-fed. This means the animals were fed their natural diet, and in addition to being more humane*, grass-fed meat is more lean and lower in fat and calories than grain-fed meat. A “grass-fed” label doesn’t mean the animal necessarily ate grass its entire life though. Some grass-fed cattle are grain-finished, which means they ate grain from a feedlot prior to slaughter, so look for the label “grass-fed and grass-finished.” *Fun fact: bison actually die when fed grain, so bison meat is a great alternative to beef, as it has almost assuredly been raised on its natural grass diet.
This brings us to the last label I’m going to cover, pasture-raised, or pastured. This is really the crown jewel of all of the food labels, (with reference to animal products) as it indicates that the animal was raised on pasture where it was able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants, (or bugs and grubs in the case of birds) rather than being fattened on grain in a feedlot or barn. Pasturing livestock and poultry allows animals to be raised in a humane manner. Animals are able to move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors.
At this point you may be saying to yourself, “well that’s great Sara, but my local grocery store doesn’t carry anything like that,” or “yeah, but it’s way more expensive to eat that way.” You’re right. I’m very fortunate to have grown up in, and currently live in towns that appreciate and give me access to the kinds of food I want to be buying and eating. Not everyone has that luxury. And yes, it is more expensive to shop at Whole Foods than at Kroger, but for me, the quality of my food is a high priority, and I’m willing to put my money towards it. All you can do is your best.
Start reading and becoming familiar with your food labels. Look for short ingredient lists that you can pronounce. Buy the good stuff when you can. Get involved with local CSAs (community supported agriculture) and start shopping at your local farmers’ market! Get to know your local farmers and growers. It’s a muscle you have to exercise, but before long all of this will become habit. Your community’s health, your family’s health, and your health depend on it.
For more information on where to find humanely raised and sustainable products in your area, or to schedule a free consultation, email me at [email protected]