Jamie Moore is the Director of Sourcing and Sustainability at Parkhurst Dining. Moore is passionate about teaching people about common misconceptions about the labels we find on our food. He shares his guidance and tips on what to know about food labels.
Fact vs. Fiction
Food labels are designed to help us better understand our food purchases. However, according to Moore, a government agency does not regulate all of the claims on a food label. Without regulation or strict standards, some of these labels can, therefore, be misleading, he said. Most consumers don’t know the true meaning behind many of these labels and may purchase food thinking that the label means more than it does. Here are five common food labels that may be misleading you.
It is generally thought that “cage-free” eggs come from a hen who lived outside of a cage. However, according to Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices, seeing a “cage-free” label on eggs does not guarantee that hens were raised outdoors or even in large open spaces. In reality, most “cage-free” egg-laying hens were raised in hen houses where each hen has a space of about 8 inches by 8 inches.
Similarly, when “cage-free” is on a meat label, it may be thought that these animals are not raised in cages, but that doesn’t mean the animals don’t live in close quarters. For example, many “cage-free” chickens are raised in large, open structures called “grow-out houses”. These houses typically hold tens of thousands of chickens, and each chicken is given less than a square foot of space (about 10.5 inches by 11 inches per chicken).
Variation exists in what “cage-free” means because the “cage-free” claim is only verified sometimes. For example, while this label on eggs is supposed to be regulated by Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the farms are not always inspected to verify the type of “cage-free” environment that the hens have access to.
When you see the label “pasture-raised,” you may picture animals who spend all day living in an open field, grazing on grass. According to Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices, however, a “pasture-raised” label on meat, poultry, dairy or egg products only means that the animals were raised for at least some portion of their lives on a pasture or with some access to a pasture. For example, “pasture-raised” dairy cows are given some access to a pasture, but primarily housed indoors and raised on a diet of hay, corn, and soy, not grass.
When it comes to dairy and eggs, there is no common standard for what “pasture-raised” means. This means that producers can decide the size, quality and access standards to the pasture. When it comes to meat and poultry, producers are required to explain what “pasture-raised’ means for their products. However, the USDA allows the producers to make their own definition of what it means. Producers do not necessarily have to stick to the same standard.
Much like “pasture-raised”, “free-range” hens and chickens are generally thought to have free access to the outdoors. However, Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices explains that there are no standard requirements for the size or condition of the outdoor area that these animals have “free-range” in. Therefore, products can be labeled “free-range” as long as birds are given some kind of access to the outdoor area. Producers don’t have to report how accessible the area is to the birds or how often they are given access.
On beef products, the “free-range” label means that the animals were given free access to the outdoors for at least 120 days each year. Again, there are no requirements for the size of the outdoor space or the quality of its condition. Like “pasture-raised”, “free-range” also doesn’t mean that the animals only at the grass on a range.
“Locally-grown” is a label that is not legally regulated. That means there is not a standard definition for what “locally-grown” means.
For example, when you hear about “locally-grown” produce, you may think the produce is grown right down the road. In reality, the produce could be grown 40, 60, or even 100 miles away. Producers can define what is “locally-grown” based on their own mission and circumstances. When you see that something is “locally-grown”, ask about what is “local” to that producer or grocer to learn more about where it came from.
The USDA defines this label as a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. According to Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices, this label is not verified. This means that there are no consistent standards to ensure that the label means what it implies to consumers. “Natural” is a label that companies can define for themselves and the definitions vary. Government agencies do not regulate the use of the “natural” food label, they can only provide guidance.
Organic food, on the other hand, is held to very rigorous standards. To learn more about the difference between “organic” and “natural” food labels, check out our article, What’s the Difference Between “Organic” and “Natural”?
Learn Before You Trust the Label
Moore emphasizes that many food labels can be confusing when there is a lack of regulation or standards for what a label means. That’s why it is important to learn more about the meaning behind a food label. By doing a little research or talking to experts like Moore, you too can be a more informed consumer at the grocery store.
If you’re interested in buying a product that truly has verified claims for things like having access to a pasture or being grass-fed, Consumer Reports suggests looking for additional labels on the product. Some food labels are strictly regulated and provide meaningful standards for things like free access to the outdoors. These labels include: