What The Label?

Are labels on packaging overwhelming you? There seems to be a label for any and everything now. Non-GMO, Grass-Fed, Reduced Fat, Organic, Pasture Raised, Gluten Free, Vegetarian Fed - What does it all really mean?!

A lot of labels can be misleading and complex. It is important to understand what each means so you are not fooled by the marketing tactics of big corporations. After going through each label, make sure to read the summary that states my opinion on these terms.

Let's start with one of the most important. This refers to both produce and meat.

ORGANIC - All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines (verified by a USDA-approved independent agency):

  1. Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for three years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.
  2. Prohibit the use of GMOs and irradiation.
  3. Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation practices.
  4. Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.
  5. Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.
  6. Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.
  7. Avoid contamination during processing of organic products.
  8. Keep records of all operations.

If a product contains the “USDA Organic” seal, it means that 95 to 100% of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70 to 95% organic ingredients can still advertise “organic ingredients” on the front of the package and products with less than 70% organic ingredients can identify them on the side panel. Organic foods prohibit the use of hydrogenation and trans fats.

  • Why is this important? Certified Organic has a standard of growing practices ensuring the food is grown as close to natural as possible.
  • This is the best option, second only to growing your own food.
  • Small businesses can not afford to become certified by the USDA as the upfront cost can be tens of thousands of dollars. When buying from local farmers at a farm stand ask about their growing practices, don't assume its organic.

NATURAL - USDA guidelines state that “natural” meat and poultry products can only undergo minimal processing and cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. Natural on all other products such as packaging protein bars and other packaged goods is not regulated.

  • Why is this important? When you pick up a box of candy that reads NATURAL GUMMY BEARS, it does not mean it is more healthy or actually containing plant sources. This also goes for natural flavoring. It may have originated from a plant but is now so heavily processed there is nothing natural about it.
  • What's better? Real organic, whole food. Real food is not questionable. A pear is a pear. Kale is kale.

ANTIBIOTIC FREE - This is a term only used on eggs and meats. It means the animal was not given antibiotics at any point throughout its lifetime. You may also see "raised without antibiotics" or "no antibiotics administered".

  • Why is this important? The overuse of antibiotics in America today is a huge epidemic. They are prescribed for nearly everything causing antibiotic resistance. If you are also eating animals who have been raised on antibiotics you will take in what they have been administered throughout their life. Animals who are raised on antibiotics are also factory farmed animals and are given these to prevent them from getting sick in a poor environment. No space to move or breathe, living in dirty houses and other sick animals living and dying all around them. Giving animals antibiotics saves these farms money.
CAGE FREE - Cage free is also a term referred only to eggs and meats. This means that the animals were raised in a facility without cages. It does NOT mean they were given any outdoor time or had room to move in the facility.
  • Why is this important? Cage free can be misleading because it appears the animal was raised in better conditions opposed to living in a cage but they are often raised in a crowded facility with the same poor living conditions and do not have room to move nor outdoor time. For a better option, look for pasture raised!

    FREE RANGE - This term is only referred to egg and poultry production under the USDAs regulations. This label can be used as long as the birds have access to outdoors. This does not mean that they spent most or their entire lives outdoors, it only means they had time outdoors. There is no regulation on the time spent outdoors and there is also no third party that checks on this.

    • Why is this important? Just like cage free this seems like it may be healthier for us and for the animals but it does not mean that they were raised without antibiotics or even treated better. Since the time is not regulated nor inspected by a third party it is an easy label to get by on.
    • What's better? Pasture raised is the best best!

    FRESH - Food is raw, has never been frozen or heated, and contains no preservatives. Fresh frozen, frozen fresh, and freshly frozen can be used for foods that are quickly frozen while still fresh. Blanched foods can also be called fresh.

    • Why is this important? Its always best to have the freshest food possible - this provides our bodies with the optimal level of nutrients available from that particular plant or animal.
    • Frozen foods can be frozen with gases such as liquid nitrogen or preserved with ingredients such as ascorbic acid.

    GLUTEN FREE - Food must be naturally free of any wheat, barley or rye. Any cross contact must be under 20ppm to be labeled gluten free.

    • Why is this important? When focusing on living a gluten free lifestyle this label can be very helpful at quick glance to know that it may be suitable for you.
    • For anyone with celiac it is important to be mindful of this label. It is crucial to stay away from any possible cross contamination so take an extra look to make sure it is processed in a gluten free facility. Real food (fruits, vegetables, gluten free grains + meats) are a celiacs best friend. 

    NON-GMO - GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals.

    • Why is this important? GMOs are one of todays biggest controversy. Crops are grown with GMOs to be able to withstand higher amounts of pesticides and chemicals. These chemicals are sprayed to kill bugs and keep animals away but with the more chemicals sprayed on the crops the more chemicals you are ingesting when you eat that crop.
    • Pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals have been shown to cause long term health effects ranging from different Cancers to Alzheimer's, allergies and everything in between.
    • What's better? Always buy organic as often as possible. NON GMO does not mean organic.

    VEGETARIAN FED - This label means the animal was not fed any animal or animal by product. This does not mean they were raised on their natural diet or on grass. Many vegetarian fed animals are grain fed to fatten the animal up quickly. Most vegetarian feed is made of corn and wheat, providing minimal nutrition to the animal, therefore providing minimal nutrition to the consumer.GOOD SOURCE - Food contains 10-19% of the Daily Value of a particular nutrient in one serving.

    GRAIN FED - This label means the animal was raised on a diet containing all or mostly grain. 

    • Why is this important? This label does not tell you whether or not the animal was fed any animal by-products. Farmers use grain feed to fatten up the animals at a low cost. Most grain feed is wheat and corn because it is two of the highest subsidized crops in the US, therefore making it extremely inexpensive for farmers. 
    • What's better? Look for a label with the animals proper diet. If you are buying red meat its best to look for Grass Fed Grass Finished.

    GRASS FED - This label can truly be deceiving. While grass fed is the better option grass fed, farmers only have to feed small amounts of grass to the cattle throughout their lifetime for this term to be used. Grass fed cattle can still be fed corn, soy and filler product in their diet as well.

    GRASS FED GRASS FINISHED - This means the cattle was raised eating grass throughout its entire lifetime and was fed no other supplemental food.

    • Why is this important? Animals natural diet is grass not grain. This makes the animal more lean. The fat that they do have is higher in Omega 3 fatty acids, opposed to a higher Omega 6 fat like grain fed animals. They are also not fed synthetic hormones, antibiotics to prevent disease or animal by-products. They may receive antibiotics to treat disease.
    • What to look for when buying grass fed or grass fed grass finished. Research the company you are purchasing from, buy from a local butcher who knows the practices, how to animal was raised and fed. It is always important to be in touch with your food and know where it is coming from especially when it comes to meat.

    NO ADDED HORMONES - This states that there have been no hormones administered to these animals. By law, hogs and poultry are prohibited from the use of added hormones.

    • Why is this important? All humans, animals, birds, etc. function because of hormones. Added hormones are used like steroids to help beef up the animals, making them bigger quicker and more valuable. This can create a poor living condition for animals that become too heavy in certain parts of their bodies are become unable to move properly, also causing their fat to be higher in Omega 6. This is also bad for humans because it throws our hormones out of balance which can effect our mood, behavior, sleep, digestion and so on.
    • What's better? Pasture raised + Organic.

    PASTURE RAISED - Pasture raised animals live on a pasture most or all of their life. They are able to roam and graze on nutritious grasses and plants.

    • Why is this important? Pasture raised animals are able to freely move around the farm and do as they please. This is more beneficial for the animals well being and creates a stress free environment, therefore having less cortisol compared to animals raised in factory farms. Pasture raised also produces animals with a more lean fat.

    RBGH-FREE OR RBST-FREE - Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is a genetically engineered hormone given to dairy cows to produce higher amounts of milk. RBGH FREE milk is produced from cows that have never been given this artificial hormone.

    • Why is this important? Refer to "no added hormones". Organic milk is RBGH/RBST free.

    HERITAGE -  A “heritage” label describes a rare and endangered breed of livestock or crops. 

    • Why is this important? Heritage breeds are traditional livestock that were raised by farmers in the past, before industrial agriculture drastically reduced breed variety. These animals are prized for their rich taste and usually contain a higher fat content than commercial breeds. Production standards are not required by law, but true heritage farmers use sustainable production methods. This method of production saves animals from extinction and preserves genetic diversity.

    HEALTHY - Foods labeled “healthy” must be low in saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Certain foods must also contain at least 10% of the following nutrients: Vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.

    • Why is this important? This label can be misleading. Although it SAYS that it is healthy it does not mean that it is truly healthy for you. The added nutrients are just that, added nutrients, usually synthetically derived. Whats healthy for me is different for you and different for the next person.
    • What's better? Real food! A piece of fruit or a bundle of kale does not need a "healthy label" to know that it is truly good for you.

    FORTIFIED / ENRICHED - This refers to foods (such as bread) that have been stripped of their natural vitamins and minerals then they are added again but with synthetic replacements.

    • Why is this important? When you see fortified or enriched - immediately put the product down. This product has been chemically adulterated and all of the "nutrients" are now synthetic and therefor, not bioavailable or beneficial to the body.
    • The synthetic compounds used can be rocks and heavy metals. Often times rocks are ground down to be considered "nutrients" for enriched foods. This is extremely hazardous to our health as our bodies can not break down rocks and this can cause build up and blockages in the body.

    FREE - Food contains no amount or trivial amount (physiologically inconsequential).

    • Why is this important? This seems great but it is usually on packages of highly processed foods. Also, just because an item is "free" of something does NOT mean it is healthier. Ex, fat free yogurt. The better choice would be grass fed full fat dairy. Another example, sugar free cookies are still cookies! They are highly processed and contain no nutrients. It also matters what they are replacing the sugar with because you better believe they are replacing it with something.
    • Another important note to determine is that these three letter agencies determine what is "physiologically inconsequential". This is where people get "The Dose Makes The Poison", yet we are unaware of the dose. If you or your children are exposed to these "trivial" amounts of HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) for example, we don't know what the dose is and what the limit is.
    • What's better? Real food! Avoid or limit foods that are labeled FREE as it is often a misleading marketing tactic.

    LEAN - Food contains less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams.

    EXTRA LEAN - Food contains less than 5  grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams per serving per 100 grams.

    HIGH - Food contains 20% or more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient in a serving.

    IMPLIED CLAIMS - These are prohibited when they wrongfully imply that a food contains or does not contain a meaningful level of a nutrient. For example, a product cannot claim to be made with an ingredient known to be a source of fiber (such as "made with oat bran") unless the product actually contains enough of that ingredient (oat bran) to meet the definition for "good source" of fiber.

    LESS - Food, whether altered or not, contains 25% less of a nutrient or of calories than the reference food.

    LIGHT - This label can have two meanings;
    1. A nutritionally altered product contains 1/3 fewer calories or half the fat of the reference food.
    2. The sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food has been reduced by 50%. Also light in sodium may be used on a food in which the sodium content has been reduced by at least 50%.
    - The term light can also be used to describe properties such as texture, taste and color as long as the label clearly explains its meaning (ex. light and fluffy)

    LOW - Food can be eaten frequently without exceeding dietary guidelines for one or more of these components; fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories.

    MORE - A serving of food, whether altered or not, contains more of a nutrient that is at least 10% of the Daily Value more than the reference food.

    REDUCED - Nutritionally altered product containing at least 25% less of a nutrient or of calories than the regular or reference product.

    LOW SATURATED FAT - Food contains 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving; no more than 15% of calories from saturated fat.

    SATURATED FAT FREE - Food contains less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat per serving, and less than 0.5 grams of trans fatty acids per serving. Saturated fats are good for us in moderation. A diet extremely high in anything is detrimental to health but the misconception of saturated fats being bad for you is out dated. Americans eat too little fats and too much protein.

    LOW SODIUM - Food contains 140 milligrams or less per serving.

    SODIUM FREE - Food contains less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.

    SUGAR FREE - Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.

    • Added sugar should be extremely limited in every persons diet. It provides a quick burst of energy and a crash shortly afterwards. The only sugar you should have is from natural sources like fresh fruit! Avoid added sugars at all costs. Remember sugar has many different names avoid items that have words with "ose" listed in the ingredients. I will do a separate blog post of all of the hidden words for sugar.

    CALORIE FREE - Food contains fewer than 5 calories per serving. 

    • Foods containing little to no calories are not healthier for you than foods with high calories. A calorie is not just a calorie. A calorie is everything that the food contains from macro + micronutrients to phytochemicals and everything in between. Calorie free may seem more appealing on a low calorie diet but all of those calories are replaced with chemicals.

    CHOLESTEROL FREE - Food contains less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.

    LOW FAT - Food contains 3 grams or less per serving.

    FAT FREE - Food contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

    PERCENT FAT FREE - Food must be low-fat or a fat-free product. In addition, the claim must reflect accurately the amount of nonfat ingredients in the 100 grams of food. 

    • Fat free and low fat is not always healthier. Good fats are an essential part of our diet and extremely important to our hormones. A better option would be real food high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

    FAIR TRADE - This means that farmers and workers, often in developing countries, have received a fair wage and worked in acceptable conditions while growing and packaging the product.

    • Why is this important? Many countries that grow crops like cacao and coffee beans are criticized for mistreating and underpaying their workers. It is important that all workers across the world have the opportunity to support their families and work in healthy and safe environments. 


    Now you know the FDAs definitions for these labels, but what does it all really mean?

    The most important labels to consider are the ones on animal products like pasture raised, no added hormones and organic on meats and produce. It is extremely important to have great quality meat in your diet if meat is a staple for you. Organic produce is imperative when eating a plant based diet to reduce your toxin exposure to pesticides and GMOs.

    Now for the other labels, fat free, low fat, reduced, sugar free, while they may important to help understand the items, products with these labels are considered "food-like" products and not food. The best way to live a healthy lifestyle and ensure you are getting good quality nutrients in your diet is to skip the packaging and head over to the produce section. There is an extremely vast assortment of real food for you to choose from, all you have to do is look for some simple recipes and get cooking!

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