Understanding Food Labels

Food Labels written by Shirley F.
Edited for OralGrooves.com by Evie

What’s Legit?

When buying food, most people take food labels at face value. If the label on a carton of eggs says “cage free,” one imagines that the chickens were free to roam on a large space of land; however, it mostly means that the chickens were jammed into a small space with just enough room for them to be able to stand. Why? Because there is no USDA regulation for the term “cage-free”. Let’s take a look at some common food labels and their legal definitions.

All Natural

The most common label is “All Natural”, which is defined as food that is minimally processed and doesn’t contain artificial ingredients or colors. No information is given about the nutritional content of the product or the way the animals were raised. Plus, the regulations on this label only apply to meat and poultry, so an “All Natural” label on fruits and vegetables or processed foods like granola bars means nothing. The addition of the word “all” or the “100%” has no meaning either. Basically, a “natural” or “all natural” label is just that, a sticker on a plant.

Locally Grown

While USDA has put more stringent restrictions on specific food labels in an attempt to stop the misinformation, there are always legal loopholes to get around these laws. Plus, non-USDA labels are not regulated or enforced by the USDA. This means that a company can put a label like “locally grown” on their food, regardless of whether or not the product was actually locally grown (let’s be honest, local to where?) because the phrase doesn’t have a legal definition and there is no third party checking.

Grass-Fed Beef

Is there a difference in the fatty acid content of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef? Yes! Grass-fed beef does contain more vitamins and anti-oxidants, while also having less cholesterol-elevating fatty acids. Unfortunately, this label doesn’t have an official definition, which means you are free to interpret this label in any way that you want. And when I say, “you”, I mean, beef companies.

Hormone or Steroid Free

Hormone-free and steroid free suggests that steps were taken to avoid hormones or steroids. This is not true for two reasons. First, it is illegal to administer hormones or steroids to farm animals in the US; so no special care was taken to avoid injecting animals with hormones or steroids. Second, all animals naturally produce hormones and steroids (estrogen, testosterone, etc.), so it is impossible for an animal product to be truly hormone or steroid free.

USDA Organic

There are so many misleading labels out there that this blog post would end up becoming a book if I were to discuss each of them. The last label, though, is not misleading or unverified. In fact, of all the labels out there to look for, USDA Organic is the most reliable, in my opinion. What do I mean by reliable? The label USDA Organic is defined and regulated by the USDA. The regulations are so extensive… well, you can see for yourself here.

The take away message from this post is this: research your food labels. Figure out what is important to you as a consumer and then find a label that is verified and certified by a third party, has a legal definition, and is regulated and audited (also by a third party). Happy hunting and bon appetit!

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