All natural. Humanely-raised. Grain-fed. Organic. Non-GMO. You see these labels all over your food, but what do they actually mean? Gaining a better understanding of these terms can help you decipher which claims are legitimate as well as which ones to avoid on nutrition labels. Because, when it comes to your food, knowledge is certainly power.
"There are many different terms out there used to help [companies] sell their products," says James Peisker, co-founder of Porter Road, an online butcher shop that delivers responsibly sourced meat. "They are always evolving and always changing." Nicole Centeno, a chef with a biochemistry background and the founder of the plant-based meal company Splendid Spoon, agrees. "There’s a lot to consider when grocery shopping these days, and it can be overwhelming," she says. "Deciding between the benefits and drawbacks of labels, basic health requirements, and taste preferences has made grocery shopping feel like mental calculus. It’s a big reason so many consumers throw their arms up and just grab whatever is most convenient."
If you, too, are feeling confused, read on. Ahead, these two experts help demystify some of the most popular jargon that plasters your food packages. From meat, to produce, to your favorite snacks, learn which labels to look for — and which ones to avoid. And if you still find yourself feeling dazed in the grocery store, try following Centeno's approach: "I keep it really simple. Mostly fruits and vegetables, mostly organic, and stay out of the center aisles as much as possible."
"This is the most dubious of all labeling claims," explains Centeno. "The FDA considers it to mean, 'Nothing artificial or synthetic is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there.' The claim does not have anything to do with growing, manufacturing, or processing methods, so a product with this label could also be a GMO [genetically modified organism] and highly processed." Plus, she adds, "Any meat labeled 'all-natural' could technically include antibiotics, growth hormones, or additives like additional sodium or sugars."
"Foods with the USDA Organic seal adhere to a very specific set of standards: The contents are 95 percent or more certified organic (free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering)," says Centeno. "This means that the raw ingredients of food with this label are free of harmful chemicals and are grown in a way that promotes ecological balance and biodiversity."
However, Peisker points out that when it comes to meat and other animal products, the label still doesn't define how the farm animals they're sourced from are treated. He explains that "organic meat" can also be the product of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. In these facilities, hundreds — if not, thousands — of animals live confined for over 45 days in a year. "'Organic' has requirements, but they can be interpreted as CAFOs that are fed organic grain," he says.
Both experts note that "organic" is also not synonymous with "nutritious." "Processed items are just the same as other junk foods, organic or not," says Peisker. Another example mentioned by Centeno: "While an organic pear might be free of pesticides and better for the environment, it does not have more nutrients than a conventional pear."
"'Pasture-Raised' is our personal favorite when shopping through labels," says Peisker. "The animal cannot be confined, which generally means that it has room to act like an animal, eat grass, and is not medicated because of confinement."
The butcher adds to keep your eye out for labels on eggs and dairy products, too. "Dairy is best to get grass-fed or pasture-raised. Eggs have so many different labels, but all that really matters is 'pasture-raised'; laying hens should be able to go outside."
Humanely Raised or Certified Humane
What about purchasing meat that's said to be "humanely raised"? The label, given by a third-party group to ensure that standards are being upheld, is great — but it shouldn't always make or break your purchase. "It is costly for the farmers and companies [to get certified]," Peisker says. "They are not always necessary, as long as the source is trustworthy and reputable." He also clarifies, "Labels like 'USDA-Inspected,' or graded meat raised with no added hormones just means that [these companies] are following the law, nothing else."
Grass-fed or grain-fed ... what's the difference? "For higher quality beef and dairy, go for grass-fed or grass-fed and organic," says Centeno. "Grass-fed means that the animal is eating mostly its natural diet of grass (versus grains), has access to pasture for at least part of the year, and the resulting meat is higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Organic is a plus in this case because it also means their feed is certified organic and free of pesticides and that the animal has not been treated with any growth hormones or antibiotics."
The Splendid Spoon founder points out that GMO foods are controversial, leading many people to opt for products that are non-GMO. "GMO stands for genetically modified organism, meaning that the traits of an organism have been engineered in a lab," Centeno explains. "‘Big agriculture’ companies have been engineering mono-crops such as soy and corn for years to improve their resistance to things like disease and pests. GMO crops have contributed to the proliferation of monocrops (large crops grown on a single piece of land without rotation, year after year) that reduce biodiversity, deplete ecological resources, and increase farmers’ dependencies on single crops and the seed companies that created the GMO in the first place.
"There have been studies citing health problems related to GMOs and others claiming that GMOs are perfectly safe. My takeaway? GMOs haven’t been great for the environment, and we don’t know enough about their effects on long term human health. Avoid them if you can."