8 Misleading Food Label Terms Every Eater Should KnowPosted: August 3, 2010
As more and more Americans are renewing their interest in where their food comes from, food companies have made an effort to catch those sustainable food dollars while changing their products as little as possible. The easiest way to do this is through advertising, hiring skilled writers to tweak the wording on the label or extol marginally better production as sustainable. These underhanded tactics can befuddle contentious shoppers, leaving them wondering what precisely is meant by these vague terms and flowery language.
After years of carefully perusing labels and subsequently researching food companies, I’ve developed a sort of translation of some common advertising terms to help me suss out what’s really sustainable — a spin doctor-to-English dictionary, if you will. Ideally you would shop in a manner that allows you to ask the farmer yourself just how he or she produces food, but when that’s not an option, here’s a helpful guide to eight food label terms and what they actually mean.
1. Cage Free. This means exactly what it says and nothing more. The carton may try to imply happy chickens in the sunshine, but cage-free hens are still confined entirely indoors in crowded and dirty conditions, and still very much treated like machines. It is certainly a big step up from being crammed into a tiny cage, unable to move, like most hens. But as I experienced for myself at Comic Con last weekend, being jostled around in a big room packed wall-to-wall with your peers can make you exhausted and miserable.
2. Free Range. Again, this term implies happy animals in the sunshine, but don’t be fooled. Look for the phrase "access to the outdoors" on the label. That means that the animals in question are confined most of the time with just a small yard to visit from time to time—if they can squeeze through the crowd to get there, that is. Now sometimes this label is applied to something truly free range, but look for terms like "pastured" and "grass fed" to confirm this. By itself, this label isn’t very trustworthy.
3. Organic. This is the most strictly regulated of the common sustainable food labels. To be called organic, a farm must go through a certification procedure and meet a very specific set of requirements, including cutting out all artificial fertilizers, chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones. Certainly if you’re going to rely on a label to make a quick food decision, this is the one. But organic doesn’t always mean what you think it means. There are a few dubious allowances in the organic regulations, and the majority of organic produce is grown miles away in vast monocultures that, while loads better for the soil and local environment, doesn’t exactly follow the spirit of sustainability.
4. Natural. This means absolutely nothing from a labeling standpoint. I joke that this is the label companies use when they have nothing real to advertise, and as such, I generally count it as a point against whatever food it’s on.
5. Humane. This term is very subjective and not regulated in any way (although the Humane Society is certainly trying to change that). I usually assign just as much weight to this label as I do to "natural," with the exception of those foods with the "Animal Welfare Approved" label. Other humane certification programs exist, but the rigorous AWA standards are the real deal. AWA animals are also required to be pastured.
6. Local. Again, this can mean almost anything. At the very least it generally means it was grown in-state, but in a place as big as California, that doesn’t mean much. It also makes no guarantee regarding how the food is grown — unless it says otherwise, it is probably conventional, pesticides and all. Besides, isn’t purchasing local food from a supermarket kind of defeating the purpose?
7. Grass Fed. There is a push to regulate this label the same way organic is (and the push back by those who fear a government label wouldn’t be strict enough), but as of now there is no certification process. It’s true that a producer could slide in an animal that was finished on grain (although I have never found an instance where this actually happened), so a more assuring label is "Grass Finished" or "100% Grass Fed."
8. Pastured. This term isn’t regulated either, so use some common sense, but it means that an animal was raised grazing or foraging outside on pasture. You can bet it lived a pretty good life given that the animals had to have enough space not to kill the grass. It’s a helpful term because animals like chickens and pigs can’t live on grass alone, thus the term "grass fed" can’t apply. But pastured animals are able to supplement their feed with bugs and forage, creating a much happier and healthier animal, whatever the sort. I consider pastured the gold standard, but I always ask questions or do more research to make sure the producer thinks "pastured" means the same thing I do.
Hopefully this will be helpful for those trying to navigate the sea of supermarket advertising. If you’re looking for more easy-to-digest little tips to live by that will help you eat healthier and more sustainably, check out Michael Pollan’s guide, Food Rules. And if you can think of any other term that needs explaining, please share in the comments section.