Natural, Grass-fed, Organic…Label Confusion!

If you have a desire to put your food dollars toward products that are good for the planet and also for your health, you are not alone. The organic, natural, and “clean” food industries have been growing explosively. The problem with such rapid growth is that the sophisticated marketing departments at major corporations have noticed, and they are taking advantage of consumers with good intentions.

How can you be sure you’re getting what you think you are? The intent of this article is not to judge your choices or tell you what you should buy, but just to help you understand that the mental image you get from a label claim on meat, eggs, and dairy products–a mental image that is probably aided by bucolic pastures, rustic fonts, and earthy words on the package–may be very different than the actual meaning of the term. I couldn’t find a succinct article summarizing these claims online, so here’s a quick breakdown of the main terms used:

  • Natural – conjures up images of rolling fields and happy animals, doesn’t it? Interestingly, the only regulatory meaning of the term “natural” is unprocessed, with no synthetic additives or colors. It doesn’t refer in any way to how an animal was raised (i.e. chemical use, outdoor access). So ignore that charming image of on the package and look for other telling information about the origin of that product.
  • Organic – this term is regulated by the National Organic Program, and has a lengthy and thorough set of requirements, including a prohibition on use of genetically-modified organisms and on applying synthetic fertilizers and the most egregiously toxic chemicals (it’s worth noting though that “organic” doesn’t mean “spray-free”). For this reason, it is one of the most rigorous programs, requiring farmers to keep extensive records, be inspected annually, and adhere to requirements intended to protect soil and human health. Meat and eggs that are certified as organic will bear the stamp from the USDA. However, it’s important to note that animals raised organically may not have had much outdoor access; the official rules only require that they get a minimum of 30% of their diet from pasture. Organic laying hens and dairy cows may get significantly less. Organic foods are also sometimes shipped from overseas, so if you are trying to support local farms, buying organic at the grocery store will probably not help you meet this goal.
  • Free Range (or Cage Free) – used in reference to laying hens. Birds are likely still raised in large enclosed buildings. They are not kept in cages, but may have to undergo stressful procedures such as de-beaking to keep them from pecking each other. They may never actually see sunlight or pasture.
  • Vegetarian Fed (egg claim) – This one has always baffled me, as chickens are naturally omnivores. I guess if the hens are being raised in a building with no outside access, their diet could be vegetarian, but I’m not sure what the perceived benefit is to this claim.
  • Grass-fed – this term is not regulated. Almost all cattle are fed grass at some point in their lives, but most beef animals in the US then spend their final 3 months in a crowded feedlot eating grain. On a label, this term is basically meaningless from an environmental, animal welfare, and human health perspective. Again, try to ignore the beautifully-designed packaging, and focus on the specific legal meaning of what’s on the label.
  • 100% Grass-finished – this term is also not regulated by the USDA, but there are 3rd party certifiers, so if the package bears a stamp certifying it as grass-finished, this claim is more trustworthy than one without any certification. Any farm or company making this claim must be able to document that their cattle never consumed any grain. Health and environmental benefits from 100% grass-fed animals have been documented.
  • Humanely raised – this term is abused by companies who know consumers increasingly care about animal treatment. But like “grass-fed,” it is basically meaningless if corporations are using it without 3rd party certification.
  • Certified Humane, or Animal Welfare Approved – these are 3rd party certifications, so they have stringent requirements for treatment of animals. Some may quibble over the differences between the certifiers, but if you find this claim on a label, while it doesn’t tell you anything else about what the animal ate or what chemicals may have been used on the farm, at least you can feel pretty good that the animal was treated well.

And I may be a bit biased here, but if you have any doubts about the way the animals were treated that produced your meat, dairy or eggs, the best solution is to buy them from a local farmer who you can ask directly about his or her production practices and claims.


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