All Food is “Natural”
While walking through the grocery store, you may notice labels such as “Natural”, “Organic”, and “Free Range”. Many consumers are willing to pay extra for products with these claims. In one poll, 63% of respondents strongly preferred foods with the “Natural” label. Not all of these labels have legal definitions, however, and some are completely unregulated.
In order to be labelled as organic, food must meet guidelines defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The product must not contain any artificial additives, including preservatives and synthetic pesticides. Many organic foods are made without genetically modified ingredients but this is not required by law. There’s no scientific evidence showing that organic foods are inherently healthier but some consumers may be willing to pay extra in order to avoid synthetic chemicals.
Free Range/Free Roaming
This is a label you might see on egg cartons. For most people, the term “Free Range” brings to mind happy chickens foraging in lush, green meadows. In reality, the producer just needs to show that the poultry has been allowed outdoor access. The law doesn’t actually state how large the area needs to be and there are no minimum time requirements. A farm could offer an outside area of just a few square feet, only accessible for a few minutes, and still be eligible for the “Free Range” label. Rather than paying extra for “Free Range” eggs, consider checking out a local farm where you’ll be able to verify how the hens are actually kept.
At first glance, this doesn’t sound any different from the “Free Range” label. The major difference is that “Cage-free” doesn’t specify that the poultry had any outdoor access, only that they weren’t kept in cages. Often, these “Cage-free” chickens are loose in large buildings. These buildings are so crowded that it’s not unusual for chickens to get severely injured, leading some to question whether or not this environment is actually better for the animals. This is another case where it’s better to find out how a particular farm raises their poultry if animal welfare is your concern.
This is an odd one, recently popping up on lots of egg cartons. Some people associate vegetarianism with health foods, figuring that eggs with this label must be healthier or higher quality. While this label does certify that the hens were fed a vegetarian diet, there’s very little benefit to picking these over other eggs. Chickens are actually omnivores so a diet of corn and soy doesn’t make them any healthier (if anything, it has the opposite effect). This label does mean that the hens weren’t fed meat by-products, including other chicken parts. However, that practice is already rare and not something the average consumer needs to worry about.
This is a label used exclusively for beef products. In the past, it meant that the cattle had been fed a diet of grass as opposed to grains such as corn. Unfortunately, the USDA revoked their definition earlier this year. Using the label still requires USDA approval but there are no longer any specific requirements or regulations.
This is a rare case of a label meaning exactly what it says. In order to label meat as “No Antibiotics” or “Antibiotic Free”, the producer needs to provide documentation showing that the animals weren’t treated with any antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is becoming more of a problem these days so it’s not a bad idea to look for this label when sourcing meat products.
No Hormones/Hormone Free
In order to use this label, the producer needs to provide proof that the animals were raised without the use of added hormones. The problem is that you’ll see this label everywhere when it’s only really relevant for beef products. The use of added hormones in pork and poultry is completely illegal in the United States, making the label pointless for those products. Companies using this label are relying on customers being unaware of these laws.
This is probably one of the most common labels you’ll see in the grocery store. It also means absolutely nothing. There is no legal definition for “Natural”, including “Made with Natural Ingredients”, “100% Natural”, and “All Natural”. Any company can label their food as being natural. Don’t bother paying extra for “Natural” foods until a legal definition is established.
In short, it’s good to read food labels but make sure you know what you’re getting. Most of these labels are used for marketing purposes and not all of them are defined or regulated.