The buzz words the food industry and the health movement uses to proclaim, claim, describe, market, or fool us can be maddening. Have you ever wondered which of those buzz words to believe and which ones to ignore? I’m going to run through a list here and give you a bit of factual information from the USDA to back it up. Some of these terms are simply fluff or marketing, but some of the terms are actually helpful and regulated.
First, the claims you can believe, those that are helpful and regulated:
Antibiotic-free – this can be claimed if an animal has not been given antibiotics during its lifetime. Similarly, the terms “no antibiotics administered” or “raised without antibiotics” are also terms meaning just what they say.
No added hormones – is a term used to indicate an animal has not been administered added growth hormones. Hogs and poultry cannot be given any hormones by law, and the USDA prohibits the term “hormone-free.” If it’s not labeled do your research or ask your farmer.
RBGH-Free or RBST-Free – Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) are genetically engineered growth hormones. These are used by dairy farmers to artificially increase milk production. This hormone has not been properly tested for safety, is banned in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, yet most conventional milk in the U.S. contains these genetically modified hormones. Choose organic milk as it is rBGH and rBST free.
GMO-Free, Non-GMO, or No GMOs – Genetically modified organisms are plants and animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. Look for GMO-Free, Non-GMO or No GMOs to ensure your are not consuming foreign substances your body cannot recognize.
Grass Fed – Just like it says, these animals were fed their natural diet of grass, rather than grains and by-products and GMOs. Best options are grass fed and grass finished, so you know the animal was not fed GMO grains in the slaughterhouse in the last hours of its life. Grass fed meat is leaner, lower in fat and calories than grain fed meat and it is simply healthier.
Healthy – Food labeled as “healthy” is surprisingly regulated and must be limited in cholesterol, low in saturated fats, and limited in sodium. Some foods in this “healthy” category must also contain 10% of Vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber. Of course, a lot of these synthetic versions of these nutrients are not very absorbable to the human body, but they are there.
Fair Trade – The Fair Trade label means that farmers and workers have received a fair wage and work in acceptable conditions while growing and packaging these products. Many of these farmers and workers are in developing countries.
Pasture Raised – This is another simple term indicating that these animals were raised naturally on a pasture where there were nutritious grasses and other plants available for grazing. The animals are allowed to roam and move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors. Pasturing livestock and poultry are traditional farming techniques that we know have worked for hundreds of years.
Organic – Organic fruits and vegetables unfortunately have to be labeled as such, because the food industry has ruined “regular food”. The USDA regulates organic farmers, sometimes to the extreme, but the criteria is as follows:
- Abstain from the use of prohibited materials (synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for 3 years prior to certification and 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 livestock.
- Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.
- Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.
- Keep records of all operation.
Organic food also prohibits the use of hydrogenation and trans fats. The “USDA Organic” seal means that 95% of the ingredients are organic. “Organic ingredients” can be used with an item has 70-95% organic ingredients in it.
Non-Irradiated – This means the food has not been exposed to radiation. Sadly some of our food is exposed to radiation energy to kill disease-causing bacteria and reduce the incidence of food borne illness, even though thorough research has not been done to know if this food is safe for human consumption.
Okay so that is a pretty good list of some of the buzz words you will see that actually mean something, are helpful and you can reasonably rely on. Now, let’s talk about a few that are mostly meaningless.
Natural – This word has no official standard or definition, except when used specifically with reference to meat and poultry, where it can be used to indicate minimal processing, does not contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives or other artificial ingredients. Natural foods are not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, free of hormones and antibiotics – this word gets used a lot when something is really not very natural. This is a word I disregard entirely in the healthy food world – meaningless.
Cage-Free – This may seems like a pretty good label or claim, but what this claim does not say is more important. It does not say that these animals had access to the outdoors, so they may just be overcrowded warehouses of animals. Look for “pasture raised” or “pastured” meat and poultry.
Free-Range – This label as defined by the USDA only pertains to poultry and egg production, and can be used even if the birds are only given a brief opportunity to be outdoors. Theses could still be indoor animals that are not treat humanely, and likely have been given antibiotics. Also, these claims are defined by the USDA, but are not verified by anyone, so we all know what happens when no one watches the hen house.
Gluten-Free – Even if you are not sensitive to gluten or a celiac, you’ve probably noticed all of the Gluten-free products in the grocery store. Some of these products are gluten-free all right, but instead contain a mix of other highly allergen ingredients, or other unhealthy substitutes to make the item taste or perform as it would with gluten. Be careful with these products and carefully read the ingredient labels.
The bottom line is that you can’t believe everything you see on a food label. I see some pretty outrageous claims on food labels in the regular part of my local grocery store. Be cautious, educate yourself and do your own research, rather than just believe a statement on food packaging.
To your good health!!