New Food Labeling Claims

Food - cow in pastureJust when people were starting to get a handle on nutrient content claims such as low fat, low sodium, healthy and light; food manufacturers are introducing a new set of food related terms like cage free, pasture-raised and gluten free. Some of these are actually meaningful distinctions that relate to the health of our food or the method they were raised, packaged or transported and others have no basis in law, and at least one, wins the award for pure bunk.

Eating Seasonally and Locally. There has been a lot of interest in eating seasonally and locally. Eating seasonally means that you only eat fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season in your area. Eating locally is a term not regulated by law that “defines local from 90 – 250 miles from your area.

The benefits to the practice include:

  • Supporting local farmers
  • Saving fuel by not transporting your food over long distances
  • Reducing greenhouse emissions by not transporting your food over long distances
  • Improving nutrient potential by getting the food to your table quicker
  • Improving variety on your table by obtaining items not suitable for long distance travel
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables usually taste better.

Here’s an example of that principal at work: I live in San Francisco one of the primary agricultural belts in the US. I purchase strawberries at farmers market and they come from a farm about 90 miles from my home and are picked the day before I purchase them. Without fail, they are sweet, juicy and delicious. I was recently on a trip to Michigan, where I was born and raised. I purchased some Michigan grown berries at the local farmers market. I was surprised when I visited a local grocery store to find strawberries from my “San Francisco” farm on the shelf and bought a package to compare the products. Hands down the local Michigan version was better than my hometown favorite. Why? They weren’t the same type of strawberry as I get at home – it was a variety grown for long distance travel and it took at least a week to get from farm to table.

One major disadvantages is the geographic location you live in can limit the number of fresh fruits and vegetables available.

For some people this can be a BIG disadvantage. If you live in New Hampshire you limit the ability to eat any tropical fruit from bananas and oranges to mango’s and papayas. But beyond that, there is little lettuce being grown in New Hampshire in the winter time so if you choose to eat seasonal as well you can also limit your fruit and veggie selection in cold weather.

For an interesting perspective on eating seasonal and local Barbara Kinsolver book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

Let’s take a look at some “new” labels so you can figure out how can consumers know which labels are meaningful, and which are not.

Common Nouveau Fruit and Vegetable Labels

Organic. A USDA organic seal is the highest stamp of organic approval. Technically speaking, this label ensures that the product is produced without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering. Any product with an “organic or “100% organic” label is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA organic standards also prohibit antibiotics and growth hormones in organic meats and poultry, and require 100% organic feed for livestock. For more information on organic farming.

If a food product has the USDA Organic certification, it’s usually pesticide-free, but that’s not always a guarantee. Studies have found that even some organic produce can contain pesticide residue carried on the wind from nearby farms. For truly pesticide-free food, look for a pesticide residue-free label.

Gluten-Free. Unfortunately, all products labeled “gluten-free” aren’t always entirely free of gluten. Some products contain no gluten ingredients but are processed on the same equipment or in the same facility as gluten-filled products. Products that claim to be gluten free have been found contain have as much as 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. Proceed with caution if avoiding gluten is important to you.

The FDA just released it’s regulation for products labeled gluten-free. Under the new rules, “gluten-free” labeling is restricted to products that meet all of the FDA requirements, including that the food contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten. The standards also apply to products that claim “no gluten,” “free of gluten” and “without gluten.” FDA is giving food manufacturers one year to come in line with the new standard.

Common Meat, Dairy and Egg Labels

Cage-Free. Products stamped with cage-free means that the animals are given more freedom to move around. Cage-free is used primarily for poultry and eggs. The term cage free invokes the image of a bird that roams outdoors during the day and retires to their coop at night. However, birds and eggs can be sold as cage free if they have access to the outdoors each day.

Cage free doesn’t identify other criteria such as environmental quality of the cage free area, size of area, number of birds or space per bird. In addition there is no guarantee the birds actually went outdoors to roam freely. As a result, unless you’ve been to the farm (see hilarious episode of Portlandia) companies can get higher prices for these products by making “cage-free” claims. Research suggests eggs from caged and cage-free animals contain similar amounts of bacteria and there is little nutritional difference between the two products.

Food - cow in pastureFree range. Free range does have an official designation by USDA: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the animal has been allowed access to the outside.”

Pasture-raised. There are too many variables in agricultural systems for the USDA to regulate or even define this term.

Grass-Fed. There is no USDA stamp of approval for products labeled “grass-fed”. The best definition of a grass-fed animal is one that has eaten nothing but its mother’s milk, fresh grass, and hay. Look for products with an American Grassfed Association or Animal Welfare Approved stamp, which guarantee the animal, was raised on a family-owned pasture or range. Since grass, not grain, is a cow’s natural food source the animal is certainly healthier. But how does that impact the health benefits for humans of such naturally raised animals? Some studies show there’s no real health advantage of grass-fed beef, while others have found grass-fed beef to contain higher levels of healthy fatty acids and antioxidants.

Hormone-Free. USDA regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork or goat. So any labeling on those products is just pure marketing hype There is a long list of potential health concerns tied to hormone-filled beef, from prenatal developmental problems to early puberty and infertility. Though the evidence isn’t always clear, some studies have shown growth hormones from certain foods can disrupt human hormones and can even contribute to breast and prostate cancer.

Antibiotic Free. USDA regulates the terms “no antibiotics added” and “raised without the use of antibiotics.” But this term still applies to animals that have been given antibiotics and then withdrawn from them just a few days before processing. The extensive use and need for antibiotics in animal production is indicative of poor living conditions for animals that promote disease.

Never-Ever Program. This program prohibits the use of growth hormones and antibiotics during the entire life of an animal, at any point and time.

Humane. Many third-party certification programs with widely varying claims exist to ensure the humane welfare of animals, and the USDA does not regulate this term.

Air-chilled. This is a still-rare but increasingly popular processing technique. The majority of chicken is water-processed after slaughter, meaning the meat is chilled in cold pools dosed with chlorine to kill bacteria. Air chilling is a more time-consuming and more expensive process, but the chicken skips the chlorine dip. And many chefs report that air-chilled birds have better flavor and skin that gets crispier.

Natural. This term is probably the most misleading of all food labels (BUNK). It’s use makes a food sound healthy but it’s a vague term used for foods without synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and other additives. The word “natural” is only regulated when it comes to meat, since regulations require meat to have no preservatives and minimal processing.

No formal definition for the use of natural on food labels has been issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, “natural” claims have become common on many foods and beverages including sugary beverages and snack foods. We’ve observed the use of the term Natural on 7 Up because they used lemon and lime flavors as well as water and high fructose corn syrup – all essentially considered natural.

FDA follows a 1993 policy that states: [FDA] has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Use of the term “natural” is not permitted in a product’s ingredient list, with the exception of the phrase “natural flavorings.”

In an effort to curb some of the confusion around this label, the USDA requires marketers to say specifically what they mean when they use the term, such as “no artificial flavors” or some such.

The Consumers Union, Guide to Environmental Labels has a label report card for nearly all commonly found food labels, including USDA organic, dolphin safe and hormone free.

Food and Water Watch offers an in-depth article on “How Much Do Labels Really Tell You?” that breaks down labels into the following groups: Labels That Tell You a Lot, Labels That Tell You a Little and Misleading Labels.

The National Dairy Council has a guide to reading labels on dairy products.


Consumer Reports

Food and Water Watch