Lying Labels: Finally Find Out What Your Food Labels Actually Mean (Or Don't Mean!)


As Americans, we have the amazingly skewed perception that our food system is meticulously regulated and well-labeled. With so many laws about home-processed foods, horror stories from health inspectors, and food labels covered in fine print and pretty farm scenery, we think we know for a fact that all of our food products must be well-controlled and defined. Unfortunately, marketing and economic loopholes create a cause for Americans to be ever-weary of what we believe we're purchasing from the grocery store shelves. Food labeling is perhaps the most deceptive component to our food system. An incredibly impactful statement I'd like you to remember is, “if it’s not on the ingredients list, or in the nutrition facts box, it’s marketing.” Take another look at that package of chicken, butter or milk. Do you really think that picturesque scene of a red barn overlooking rolling hills with a quaint sunset in the background is where your food came from? Do you see the fine print (usually printed in grey so as not to stand out and catch your attention) telling you to “check nutritional information” for the saturated fat content of those “sugar free, all natural, made with real ingredients” snack cakes? Everything we buy in a supermarket is intentionally and strategically designed to convince us to buy it. As we learn about living a more sustainable and greener lifestyle, we are trained by trending culture to seek out “free range” meat and “cage free” eggs because we think those claims mean our food is more sustainable. Let's talk about what those labels really mean, or in some cases- how little they mean. Free Range- The USDA defines “free range” as “demonstrating to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Your mind immediately goes to a wide open field with happy chickens frolicking about as they please. But what the USDA fails to define is the word “access.” According to their worded definition at the present time, “access” can simply mean a small opening in an enclosure where a single chicken can squeeze out of at a time. Be careful with this one. If you are going to pay more for "free range" meat or eggs, we suggest buying locally as well, or from a small producer so you can better investigate what the label is really implying. Cage Free- According to the USDA, "cage-free" eggs are "produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle." Although at first glance this is considered a much more humane environment for layers, there is no regulation for how large the above-mentioned "roaming area" needs to be, or how many hens can be enclosed in the space.

Humane- Quoted from the USDA website, “Labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.” We would like to think that if a producer uses this label on their claims, they are sincere- and most producers we know personally take it very seriously. If you are interested in what "humane" handling of animals consists of, check out the USDA resources here. Grass Fed- This label certifies that, "grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning." Animals cannot be fed grain or grain-byproducts and must have continuous “access” to pasture during the growing season. Acceptable feed sources include grass, forbes (legumes), browse, cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state, hay and other crop residues not containing grains. Routine vitamin and mineral supplements are acceptable for the well-being of the animal but must be meticulously documented. It's important to note that this label does not restrict the use of hormones and antibiotics! Natural- Over the past decade the FDA has received extreme backlash over their blatant lack of definition or criteria to label a food as "natural." In 2016 a statement was finally released loosely defining the expectations of the label as, "nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food." Although this is still highly unregulated and vague, it is at least much more common in today's standard grocery store to see "cleaner" and more whole food ingredients on the ingredients list of products labeled, "natural." Pasture-raised- Although not strictly defined, this label does require producers to provide significant documentation to the Food and Safety Inspection Service that animals were raised in a way that reflects the implied definition of the label. This documentation can include "a written description explaining controls for ensuring that the animals are raised in a manner consistent with the meaning of the raising claim; a signed and dated document describing how the animals are raised to support that the claims are not false or misleading; a written description of the product tracing and segregation mechanism from time of slaughter or further processing through packaging and wholesale or retail distribution; a written description of the identification, control, and segregation of nonconforming animals/product." No Added Hormones- pretty self-explanatory, however did you know that federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork or goat? If this term is labeled on a product it must also be followed by a statement that says, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones." So unless you see this label on a package of beef, it really is just another claim to put on the package as marketing. We may as well start labeling our fruits and vegetables “no meat added”...

Healthy- In 2016 the FDA provided basic criteria producers must meet to label a product "healthy." Largely centered around the fat content of the food, the amounts of poly and mono-unsaturated fats in the product must make up the majority of the fat content, and each ratio and amount must be clearly labeled on the product. Additionally, the food must contain at least 10% of the recommended daily value (DV%) of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein OR fiber, IF the food contains 10% of the DV of potassium OR vitamin D. As you can see, this label does not in any way mandate that the product is highly nutritious, minimally processed, made with whole foods, free of additives, or low in calories. Don't be drawn to this label by what your own interpretation of "healthy" is for you or your family.

Gluten-Free- This label is actually incredibly specific and well-regulated, and for good reason. Although many consumers avoid gluten in foods to self-address digestive issues, inflammation and personal preference, consumers with Celiac Disease can become incredibly ill and even develop life-threatening conditions if they ingest gluten. For a food product to be labeled "gluten free," it must contain less than 20ppm (parts per million) for the unavoidable presence of gluten. According to the FDA, this standard protects most Celiac consumers from possible harm and is consistent with international food labeling standards. Organic- I will applaud the USDA on this one, and it is one that I look for and abide by on a regular basis.

Perhaps the reason I approve of it, is that it is so complexly defined and regulated, that it is actually meaningful. The USDA certifies a crop is organic if it has not been produced with irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, or genetically modified organisms. It takes three years, a whole lot of paperwork, and some hefty certification fees to be able to use that round, green “organic” seal on one’s produce. Animal products and meats that are certified organic ensure that the animals were fed a 100% organic feed and forage diet, and not administered antibiotics or hormones. They also must be provided access to the outdoors that allows them to exercise their natural behaviors (aka, not just a window). Processed food must contain 95% or more organic ingredients to be certified while labels that claim “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70%, but may not display the seal. You can check out the very thorough criteria of organic labeling requirements on all categories of food products here. All that being said, it is important to understand that "organic" doesn’t always encompass all aspects of sustainability. In many cases it is, however a producer can produce organic food while still degrading the environment and foregoing energy and soil efficiencies. After certification is achieved, a producer’s land is inspected every year to make sure the seed sources, soil conditions, weed and pest management, water systems, and strict record-keeping of the operation is all being done using sustainable methods and without synthetic chemicals or destructive practices. These inspections however, can range from land surveillance and detailed interviews with producers, to simply glancing at the year’s paperwork and moving on. It is also important to know that “organic” may not mean that NO pesticides were used to produce the food, it just means that those on the “prohibited” list were not used. Realistically there are around 200 different chemicals and pesticides that are allowed to be sprayed on “organic” produce and still be certified under the seal. Also, “grass-fed” beef does not necessarily ensure that the beef is “organic” since the animal may be consuming GMO or non-organic grasses and forage. Different producers have different growing methods, so get to know yours first-hand. GMO- stands for Genetically Modified Organism. These are crops that have been altered through gene-splicing techniques using genetic engineering, This biotechnology allows DNA from one species to be injected into another species to create a combination of plant, animal, bacteria, or viral combinations that do not normally occur in nature or through cross-breeding or natural hybridization. In 2016, Congress passed a bill that mandates all producers must disclose the use of bio engineered products in their foods by 2022. This new standard defines bio engineered foods as, "those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature." In more than 30 other countries GMO’s are outlawed because they have not been proven safe and the long-term side effects of eating plants combined with animal or other DNA is unknown. However in the U.S., GMO crops have become so profitable that over 93% of soy and cotton, 86% of corn and over 90% of canola produced in this country is now genetically modified. It is estimated that over 80% of all packaged food in the grocery store contains GMO’s, as well as the vast majority of certain crops produced globally such as apples, eggplants and pineapples. For a deeper dive into the USDA's labeling disclosures for bio engineered foods, visit their website.

A reader once asked me what the point of GMO’s was- why use them if they may not be safe? The most popular reason I can think of is to lower costs of production. I will try to keep it simple: Let's say a GMO corn seed has been genetically modified and spliced with bacteria DNA to become resistant to a popular herbicide. A farmer can go out and plant hundreds of acres of corn in a single day with his big machinery. Soon after, he can go out with his machinery again and drench his entire field in herbicide- covering everything- the soil, the weeds, and the seeds he just planted. The herbicide will destroy every trace of weeds on his land, however because his GMO corn has been genetically modified to resist the herbicide, it will not die. Farmer Brown now has a beautiful, weed-free field of genetically modified corn with a single pass of his tractor. Doesn’t sound so bad right? He doesn’t have to weed his fields, he can get the most out of his crops, and yields will generate beaucoup profit. But what about the unknown health effects of consumers? What about the essential microbes and bacteria in the soil that he just destroyed with herbicide? What will happen when this herbicide runs off into water sources? There are so many negative externalities we may not be aware of yet.

I hope this brings a few marketing term to light for you. Some labels give very little insight into a product unless you can ask the smart questions to pinpoint exactly what you want to know. Resist being a target market and make your best efforts to become a responsible consumer. Is there a label you don't see here that you would like added to the list? Contact us!

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