For many of us who think a lot about food, how healthy it is, where it comes from, and how it was produced, we tend to rely on food labels to give us at least a little bit of that information. We look for information on nutrition, for instance, in the Nutrition Facts labels, or we read the health and nutrient content claims on food packages. And when it comes to production practices, we might look for terms like “Organic,” “Natural,” or “Farm-fresh.” We might even look for information that might tell us something about animal welfare. The term, “cage-free,” for example, would seem to suggest a hen that has the ability to roam around a pasture and perform its natural behaviors.
The US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration both have a role to play in regulating some of this terminology. The problem is, some terms are well-regulated, some are poorly regulated, and some are entirely unregulated. And that not only leads to consumer confusion, it opens up a grey area for companies to paint a picture of their food that might not be totally accurate.
So, let’s wade through at least some of the more popular terms out there to get a better idea of what they actually mean, and how they’re regulated.
ORGANIC: Let’s start here because it is probably the most well-regulated by USDA. If you see “100% Organic” on a label, that means the product contains only fully organic ingredients. If you see the word, “Organic,” without any other qualifiers, that signifies the product contains 95% or more organic ingredients. If you see, “Made with Organic Ingredients,” then the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients. So, even if you didn’t know the percentages related to the terminology, you at least get a sense of the organic nature of a product.
NATURAL or NATURALLY RAISED: Things get pretty dicey from here on out. For instance, the term “natural” is really poorly regulated. The Food Safety and Inspection Service of USDA maintains a legal definition for “natural”: that the product contains no artificial ingredients or added coloring and is only minimally processed. There are some requirements to using this term: the food product label must explain what is meant by using the term “natural.” BUT, this definition only applies to meat and poultry products…and that’s it.
“Naturally raised” is a similar term used on food products, but one that means even less than “natural.” Another branch of the USDA maintains the definition for “naturally raised,” meaning an animal is raised without growth promotants or antibiotics. This definition, however, doesn’t require any sort of label with an explanation of the term. AND, an animal can be raised without the use of antibiotics or growth promotants, but could still be raised on feedlots and can be processed into a product that is in no measurable way any “healthier” or more sustainable than a comparable product. So, even though you might think “naturally raised” would proffer some sort of health or other benefit, it doesn’t necessarily.
FARM FRESH: “Farm-fresh” is all together unregulated. It’s just a marketing term, so really if a product originated at a farm and wasn’t spoiled when it was bought, it probably could be considered ‘farm-fresh.’ This is a very nice example of what some people call ‘green-washing.’
GRASS-FED, CAGE-FREE, and FREE-RANGE: Terms like ‘grass-fed,’ ‘cage-free,’ and ‘free-range,’ are all dubious in their usage. Each has some regulation behind it, but that regulation is lax and doesn’t reflect the image most people have when they see these terms on food packaging. ‘Grass-fed’ only means an animal was fed 100% grass (it does not have to be out on pasture all the time; rather it could be fed harvested grass within a feedlot). It could also have been fed hormones and antibiotics. So, even though the term ‘grass-fed’ suggests a cow out on a green hill munching on grass, this is probably not close to the reality in many cases.
‘Cage-free’ and ‘free-range’ are both poorly regulated terms as well. If a hen is cage-free, it is raised and lays eggs outside of cages. However, it is still likely living in a barn or warehouse, quite possibly in very crowded conditions (which often require de-beaking, or the unanesthetized cutting off of the birds’ beaks). It might or might not have actual access to the outdoors, and if it does, it can just as likely be an enclosed concrete area as actual pasture. Similarly, with ‘free-range,’ outdoor access must be provided the animal, but the length of time and the quality of that outdoor area is not regulated.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE: Since we buy food far from where it was produced, we can probably rely on organic labeling to tell us at least a little bit about how a product was produced. But we can’t rely on terms such as ‘natural,’ ‘farm-fresh,’ ‘cage-free,’ or ‘free-range’ to tell us much about the healthfulness of a food product, its environmental impact, or how animals were treated in the production of the food product. I would go so far as to say you should avoid putting any stock in these green-washing type terms. Instead, and especially for animal products, the best thing to do is to try to purchase from local producers who you can question about production and animal handling practices. When it come to fruits and vegetables, relying on organic labeling is at least a step in the right direction. But better yet, knowing where they come from, who produced them, and how they were produced, is the absolute ideal.