What does that food label really mean, and how can you avoid being duped?
Food labeling has been a bone of contention for me for years.
In theory, it offers critical information that consumers need to make healthy choices. But in practice? Well, like most things designed to benefit the public’s heath, it’s been co-opted by Big Food’s massive marketing machine.
In other words, food manufacturers are basically given complete freedom to say whatever they want on their labels, regardless of what’s actually in their product. You could call it creative freedom. But I prefer to call it what it really is: willful deception.
While this practice has never been okay with me, the situation has taken a serious turn for the worse in recent years, thanks to a new crop of consumer “buzzwords” flooding the market: organic, cage-free, non-GMO… the list goes on and on.
But how many consumers actually know what these labels really mean? Let’s dive in a little deeper—and clear up a few misconceptions, once and for all.
In farming, freedom isn’t “free”
There’s no better example of how deep the confusion over food labeling runs than the terms “cage-free” or “free-range.”
These phrases lead the average consumer to believe that the hens that laid the eggs or provided the poultry reside outdoors in some pastoral backyard coop—enjoying the freedom of nature their whole lives. (Which is exactly where they should be—in the sunshine, eating bugs.)
But the truth is, those hens likely spent most, if not all, of their lives indoors.
Let’s start with “cage-free”: By strict definition set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), cage-free eggs and poultry come from chickens that aren’t housed in the typical wire cages used in commercial chicken and poultry farming.
But most consumers don’t realize these hens are still indoors, living on the floor of a barn.
And to make matters worse, they’re usually packed inside like sardines, with tens of thousands of birds sharing a single space.
Next up, you have “free-range,” which isn’t much better. According to the USDA definition, free-range birds have to have some kind of access to the outdoors.
But we’re still talking about the same packed chicken warehouses with just with a few doors thrown in here and there.
Needless to say, many birds never actually find their way outside. And yet, as long as those doors are there, you can call the eggs and poultry “free-range”… yet another textbook case of the government siding with business over consumers.
Go for pasture-raised eggs and poultry
So “cage-free” and “free-range” eggs and poultry aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. But here are two labels you can count on: “pasture-raised” and “grass-fed.” (With one important caveat, which I’ll return to in a moment.)
Pasture-raised chickens actually do spend most of their time outdoors foraging. Farmers typically move them from pasture to pasture on a regular basis. And while the hens’ natural diet plays a big part in the quality of the poultry and eggs that they produce, the birds themselves are also simply happier.
You’ll want to look for reputable, enforceable certifications when purchasing your poultry, beef, dairy, or eggs. Because just like food labels, sometimes those certifications can be deceiving.
So, as always, it pays to do a little research. (According to Consumer Reports, for example, “American Humane Certified” is just okay—but “Animal Welfare Approved” is excellent.) These types of certifications will be printed directly on the food packaging.
But there are also a number of online resources you can use to find a certified product, like this one.
Breaking down the buzzwords around beef
When it comes to beef, you might already be looking for the term “grass-fed” on the label. This term means that the cattle weren’t confined to an indoor feedlot and stuffed with corn, but instead grazed from a pasture, the way cows were meant to.
A lot of store-bought grass-fed beef in this country comes in the form of ground beef, mainly from Australian farms. But you can find steaks and other cuts of beef with this label, too. And you can even find grass-fed beef raised in the U.S.—especially if you shop local.
But there is one catch: “Grass-fed” beef can still come from a cow that was put on a feedlot in its final month before slaughter, to be fattened up with grain. (In other words, grain-finished.)
As you might imagine, this changes the fatty acid profile of the meat—and not for the better.
So while grass-fed meat is still a more ethical choice than conventional, you must look for grass-finished beef if you want the healthiest option.
This can be tougher to find, but the best places to look are local farmer’s markets and food co-ops.
Non-GMO doesn’t make a product healthy
Now, let’s move on to my least favorite label of all—“non-GMO.” Because all I can say is WOW… this may be one of the biggest food lies out there today.
Sure, transparency when it comes to genetically modified products is important. (And outside of a label, how else are consumers to know?) But “flexible interpretations” have allowed manufacturers to use this particular label in less-than-honest ways.
First things first: Non-GMO, in the most straightforward sense, means that the food doesn’t contain ingredients from genetically modified crops. (Note that most cash crops, which are used extensively in packaged, processed foods—like wheat, corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets, for example—are GMO.)
But here’s the thing: Companies are now labeling their products “non-GMO” even when what they’re selling is never genetically modified. For example, Tropicana® can label their orange juice as “Non-GMO Project Verified” even though there are no GMO oranges on the market to begin with!
It’s simply a marketing tactic to ensure their product sticks out on the shelves. And a health-conscious consumer will often choose that brand and pay more for it—even when technically, all of its competitors are also non-GMO.
And it’s not just orange juice. The “Non-GMO Project” label appears on more than 55,000 organic and non-organic products on supermarket shelves today—many of which have no GMO counterpart, or couldn’t possibly contain GMOs in the first place.
This inherently makes these claims “false and misleading” by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards, because they imply that a certain food is “safer, more nutritious, or otherwise has different attributes than other comparable foods because the food wasn’t genetically engineered.”
Yet, the FDA never disputes these kinds of absence claims. And consumers are none the wiser. It’s truly criminal, if you ask me. And that’s not even the worst part. Because ultimately, a “non-GMO” label doesn’t make a product clean or healthy.
Unless labeled otherwise, non-GMO crops are still grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, which are harmful to your health and to the environment. So, is there an option you can—and should—look for? Well, let’s take a look…
Organic certification actually means something
The term “organic” really does mean something. Namely, that the food was grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizer.
But the government still allows for some interpretations of the rules here that I personally find ridiculous. For the most part, though, and for most consumers, “certified organic” is the best you’re going to get.
Organic farmers aren’t allowed to use genetically engineered ingredients, or synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, ever. (Instead, they use composted animal manure for fertilizer and rotate their crops to control pests.)
There are also minimum standards for humane treatment of organic livestock—and I stress the word “minimum” here.
Organically raised cattle or chickens can only consume organic feed. (Though as you and I both know, they should be eating grass, earthworms, and bugs—not feed.) They can also be pasture-raised or grass-fed, but that’s not required. And unless it explicitly states so on the label, you can safely assume that they weren’t.
But the most important aspect of the “organic” label is that organic standards are actually enforced—unlike other food label certifications. Farmers are monitored and certified. And violations can actually be federally prosecuted as crimes.
In other words, when you buy organic, you can be reasonably certain that you’re getting exactly what you pay for. Of course, whether or not that label is worth the extra expense is another matter. But I happen to think it is.
Better for you, better for the planet
The one thing we can all agree on is that organic farming—whether we’re talking about crops or livestock—is healthier for the environment, the soil, the animals, and the farmers themselves.
But there’s plenty of evidence that it’s actually healthier for you, the consumer, too.
In fact, researchers reviewed data from over 300 studies examining the differences between organic and conventionally grown crops. And they found that the antioxidant boost you get from switching to organic products could be the equivalent of eating one or two extra servings of fruit and veggies every day.1
But even if the nutritional value of an organic product was identical to a non-organic product, you’d still be eating less pesticides and fertilizers. And as I often warn, these toxins affect virtually every aspect of human health. So in my view, that alone more than justifies the additional cost.
Looking beyond the labels
There’s a silver lining to this entire discussion: We’re only talking about these food labels in the first place because consumers have demanded both transparency and higher quality products.
Our individual shopping decisions will force these issues into the spotlight even further. But the food industry won’t change by boycotts alone. And as I’ve always said, we need political change—and stronger environmental regulations in particular—if we’re really going to make a difference.
Food producers also need guidance (and let’s face it, some muscle) to motivate them to do the right thing without turning every regulation into a marketing opportunity. But the hope is that soon, it won’t be a matter of “us versus them.” And consumers won’t have to feel paranoid or guilty every time they buy something to eat.
Bottom line: The world has plenty of honest farmers who work hard to produce ethical, high-quality food—and a number of organizations that work hard to support them.
These are people who have dedicated their lives to rehabilitating our food system—furthering farming practices that are good for the environment, animals, and consumers. And deceptive labeling practices hurt them as much as they hurt us, by making it harder for conscientious shoppers to identify truly healthy products.
The difference we’re seeing today between promise and delivery is absurd. I’m a big believer in under-promising and over-delivering. But obviously, this isn’t a rule according to which Big Food marketers operate.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Navigating what to eat—never mind how to eat it—is a huge challenge.
Labels are an important step toward greater consumer awareness. But I always, always urge people to examine the actual ingredients list, along with the nutrition facts, when they shop.
Because if you’re not looking closely, you could end up being Big Food’s next dupe.
1. Baranski M, et al. “Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.” Br J Nutr. 2014 Jun 26:1-18.