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What You Should Know About Food Labeling

There are a lot of food labels in our grocery stores, “cage-free eggs” “organic eggs” “grass fed beef” “grass-finished beef”, “all natural” “low fat” “reduced fat”, I could keep going. I scoured available reputable literature to research what these terms mean, to help you make informed decisions when you purchase your food. I believe that knowledge is power and knowing what we buy can make us smart consumers and not just victims to food marketing.

Some consumers are under the assumption that foods labeled “gluten free, fat free, GMO free, etc.” are healthy and good for our health but this can mean completely the opposite. These foods can be filled with chemical additives, refined sugars and a whole lot of ingredients that they would prefer to avoid in their diets.

It is highly recommended to read the food label and not the front of the package, so that you do not fall for all the hyped up labeling in the front that is trying to convince you that the food is good for your health. Keep in mind that not all front-of-package claims on foods are government endorsed. They have not all been examined using the USDA (oversight on animal-related products, organic food production for both plants and animals) or FDA (regulation on produce and packaged foods) set standards.

There are a lot of terms used on the front packages of foods. We will look at the most commonly used and what they stand for:

Natural or all-natural This claim is not regulated by the FDA and it does not necessarily mean that the produce and packaged foods labeled as such are free of artificial ingredients, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organism), and etc.

On the other hand, meat, poultry and egg products labeled natural or all-natural are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients as per USDA jurisdiction. This natural label does not include any farm practices and does not regulate their usage of antibiotics and growth hormones.

By USDA standards, the term “Naturally raised” means that the livestock has been raised without antibiotics and growth promotants and are not fed animal by-products. This does not guarantee that the manufacturer used eco-friendly farming practices and the animal welfare is not addressed.

USDA Organic Organic means that prohibited pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms cannot be used on crops. For livestock, it also verifies that the producers meet the animal health and welfare standards, they do not use growth hormones, they use 100% organic feed and provide the animals with outdoor access.

Descriptions of the Organic label (ALWAYS LOOK FOR THE USDA ORGANIC SEAL): *100% Organic: all ingredients and processing aids must be organic *Organic: 95% or more organic ingredients *Made with organic: at least 70% of the ingredients are organic

Keep in mind, any other labels besides the above-mentioned are not regulated, if the label says “better than organic” … red flag!!

Low Fat, Fat-Free and Reduced Fat Foods labeled low fat, fat-free, etc. are not necessarily healthier or contain fewer calories. When manufacturers take the fat out, they replace it with other ingredients such as sugar, which can lead to these foods being high in calories.

The following are regulations for these foods: *Fat free foods: must have less than 0.5 g fat per serving *Low fat foods: cannot have more than 3 g of fat per serving *Reduced fat foods: must have at least 25% less fat than the regular version of those foods *For foods with less than 0.5 g of saturated fat and less than 0.5 g of trans fatty acids, the manufacturer can claim that they are saturated-fat free or zero saturated fat

Grass-Fed This is a USDA term referring to animals such as cows and sheep that are only fed mother’s milk, forage and have access to pasture during the growing season (year-round access to pasture is not guaranteed). This does not include limitations on the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. To know that this process has been inspected and verified by the USDA, the package must have a “USDA Process Verified” shield.

USDA unregulated terms: grass-finished, green-fed


This term refers only to poultry, indicating that there is access to shelter, food, fresh water and outdoor area. The quality and size of the outdoor area and the duration of access to the outside area are not specified.

USDA unregulated terms: free-roaming

Cage-free Cage free does not mean outside. These birds could roam free in an indoor or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during the production cycle.

Unregulated conditions: outdoor access, or if raised in overcrowded conditions

No Antibiotics Added While there is no system in place to verify this claim, this term can be used on labels for meat and poultry when manufacturers provide the USDA with sufficient supporting documentation.

USDA unregulated term: antibiotic-free

No Added Hormones The law does not allow the use of hormones in the raising of poultry and hogs. Manufacturers are allowed to use this label on the products from these animals if they include the following words “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones”.

No Hormones Administered This term applies to beef and dairy products. The manufacturer has to provide documentation that no hormones have been used in raising the animals.

Animal proteins contain hormones naturally, the terms hormone-free or no hormones are not permitted on poultry, beef and pork products.

Things to keep in mind:

*If a product has a lot of nutrition claims on the front, this might be a red flag that the product is not that nutritious *Always read the nutritional panel on the back of products *Always look at the serving sizes for portion control *There are 3rd party organizations that can help regulate the non-government regulated terms such as the NON-GMO project and CNG (Certified Naturally Grown) *Some local farmers cannot afford to become USDA organic certified, if you can, get to know your local farmer, their farming practices, etc. *Explore farmers markets or join a co-op *Keep it simple, eat whole foods and avoid processed foods

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