A No Nonsense Guide to Food Labels

8074896618_6d329b1390_o (1)

Common Labels

 1. Cage Free
This label found on eggs, has no standard definition. Although chickens cannot be kept in a cage, they do not necessarily have access to the outdoors. Beak cutting and forced molting (the practice of causing stress to egg-laying hens so that they will produce larger eggs later) through starvation is permitted.

 2. Free Range
This label can be misleading. The USDA requires ‘free-range’ animals to have access to the outdoors, but there are no requirements regarding the amount of space and time.

 3. Grass Fed
Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Grass-Fed benefits include: healthier animals and the preservation of the natural ecosystem. Look for certifications by the Food Alliance, The American Grassfed Association and/or the USDA.

 4. Pasture Raised
There is no federal definition for ‘pasture-raised’, so this is also a subjective term used by the farmer. Typically, pasture-raised hens are kept outdoors on a spacious pasture and kept indoors at night for protection. However, because the label is unregulated, there are no restrictions regarding the amount of time spent on the pasture, the size of the pasture, or the quality of the pasture.

 5. No Added Hormones
The USDA does not allow any hormones to be used on turkeys, chickens, or hogs. Hormones can be given to beef cattle and sheep to speed growth. Additionally, hormones are given to dairy cows to increase milk production. There is no specific hormone-free certification, although organic (certified USDA and/or CCOF) and grass-fed labels do not allow the use of hormones.

 6. Raised Without Antibiotics
There is no uniform definition for this label. Producers can create their own antibiotics standards and present them to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The USDA then evaluates the paperwork and conducts on-site audits (although they decline to say how many audits are conducted). Based on this information they either approve or deny the label claim.

 7. Natural
This label can be misleading and in most cases is used subjectively. The FDA has no definition for the term natural, but does not object to it as long as the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Meat and poultry can be labeled natural if there are no artificial ingredients or added colors.

8. Fair Trade Certified
These labels ensure that the producers of the goods are compensated justly. This is achieved through fair pricing, fair labor conditions, and direct trade. Although these products may not be organic, the use of agrochemicals and GMOs are prohibited.

A quick note…

Trying to understand who produced our food and how our food was produced is exhausting. We are constantly being bombarded by an overwhelming amount of food labels that are unclear and often unreliable. For now, we have little power over what these labels mean or represent.

In the meantime, we have the ability to choose where we shop and from which farms and companies we buy. Farmers markets offer the chance to purchase locally and build relationships with your farmers.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service began tracking farmers markets in 1994; the number of farmers markets in the United States has grown from 1,755 to 8,268 in 2014. Not everyone has access to an abundance of farmers markets, but if you have the chance visit one.

Remember, without our health we have nothing. Feed your body, feed your soul.

P.S. As I was finishing this post, I listened to Tyler Florence’s Test Kitchen Podcast ‘Douglas Gayeton and the Lexicon of Sustainability‘. The podcast beautifully expands on everything I’ve mentioned here and is well worth the listen!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *