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

Updated: Oct 21, 2020


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 w