Demystifying Food Labels

Written by Samantha Walter-Cano
Edited by Andrea Lazzari & Kaitlyn McCarty

Have you ever found yourself shopping at the grocery store, only to find out you have no idea what labels on food products, especially animal products, truly mean? Common terms such as ‘All Natural’, ‘Non-GMO’, ‘Organic’, and ‘Free Range’ are used on food labels to market to consumers. However, many of these terms can be misleading or confusing.

This blog aims to help educate consumers on these commonly used, and sometimes purposefully confusing terms. Next time you go shopping, be on the lookout for these labels and shop according to your preferences!

Commonly Confused Terms

Grass-Fed Beef

Technically, all beef cattle eat grass, or forage, for at least two-thirds of their life. The difference is that some cattle are finished on grass while others are finished on grain. There are advantages to both grass-finished and grain-finished beef. However, many people incorrectly assume that grass-fed beef means it is also organic, and that is only sometimes the case.

While all cattle can be considered grass-fed for most of their lives, some research indicates the different characteristics between finishing cattle on grass vs. grain. One difference may be the total fat content. Grass-fed cattle tend to have less total fat than grain-finished cattle. This may be ideal for some consumers looking to cut their cholesterol. Grass-fed cattle have more fat marbling, associated with a higher USDA quality grade.

Cage-Free vs. Free Range vs. Pasture Raised Eggs

 There are many different options when purchasing eggs, and the differences can be confusing.

Fun Fact: There is no nutritional difference between white and brown eggs! Different breeds of chickens will lay different colored eggs.

Cage-FreeHens are not confined to a cage. They are usually housed in a large, open barn where they may or may not have access to the outdoors. Cage-free birds are more likely to get injured, come into contact with feces, and may have more frequent infections requiring antibiotic treatment.

Pasture-RaisedHens have access to the outdoors and are raised on a pasture. They have access to feed and can also eat insects, grass, and seeds. The USDA does not regulate this term.

Free-RangeThis term describes meat birds, so it has no USDA-recognized meaning for describing eggs.

Organic, All Natural, and Certified Naturally Grown

Organic – The market for the organic industry has increasingly grown over the years, but what exactly does organic mean? It must follow the USDA’s National Organic Program standards to be considered an organic product. Farmers must also pass and complete a yearly inspection from a USDA agency. GMOs, irradiation, synthetic pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers are prohibited to meet organic product standards. While organic produce has less pesticide residue than non-organic, both residue levels meet or exceed the safety standards for human consumption. There are also no differences in nutritional content. If a product is 100% or certified organic, everything the product contains is organic, while USDA organic means 95% is.

All Natural – While the meaning of this term may vary among products, in meat, it simply means that no artificial ingredients or preservatives are used. It doesn’t mean, however, that it is antibiotic or hormone free.

Certified Naturally Grown – If a product is certified naturally grown, it adheres to the organic principles and others. However, the inspection is not done by a USDA agency but rather by other farmers. This term is appropriate for farms selling locally as it is a cheaper alternative to organic standards.

Unpasteurized vs. Pasteurized

When shopping for milk or orange juice, you’ve probably noticed that some packaging says pasteurized while others don’t. What is pasteurization? Pasteurization sterilizes a product using heat to eliminate pathogens, make it safe for consumption, and improve shelf life. Many products are pasteurized, including milk and milk products (cheese, yogurt, etc.). Fruit juices like orange juice and egg products are also commonly pasteurized products.

All egg products sold are required by the FDA to be pasteurized. Juices, however, are not required to be pasteurized. While most juices sold in the US are pasteurized, juices from some grocery stores and health stores may not be pasteurized. These products must have a warning label except for juice by the glass.

You may come across small-scale operations selling unpasteurized products, such as juice bars and farmer’s markets. There are health and safety risks associated with consuming these. Pasteurization may or may not affect the taste.

Antibiotic-Free

If a product is labeled antibiotic-free, sufficient documentation has been provided to show that the product (meat or poultry) has been raised without antibiotics.

Hormone-Free

The FDA has approved added hormone use in beef, dairy cows, and lambs to increase efficiency. Products with added hormones are considered safe and contain the same number of hormones as those without added hormones. However, since hormones are naturally occurring, “hormone-free” or “no hormones” cannot be used, given that all products already have natural hormones. The correct terms are either “no added hormones” or “raised without added hormones”. To use these terms on a label, the farmer must provide sufficient documentation to the USDA showing that no hormones have been added while raising the animals.

The label “no added hormones” cannot be used in poultry or pork, given that the FDA does not allow the use of hormones in any poultry or pork product.

Non-GMO

A non-GMO label means that the product is free from any ingredients that have been genetically modified. However, all organic products are prohibited from using GMOs. Due to consumers’ confusion about whether organic products contain or have been fed genetically modified foods, the FDA and the USDA have changed their policy to allow organic products to be labeled “non-GMO”.

However, this does not mean that if an organic product lacks a “non-GMO” label, it uses GMOs. Regardless of whether a label is present, organic products are not allowed to use GMOs. Labels are present by choice to communicate to consumers that organic products do not contain genetically engineered ingredients.

USDA Inspected vs. USDA Grading

Within the United States Department of Agriculture, they run two separate programs – inspection and grading. Inspection of meat, eggs, and poultry is mandatory by the USDA. This service is paid out of tax dollars. The grading of a product for quality is voluntary. The meat and poultry facilities pay for the grading of a product.

Some common examples of grading are egg products. For example, eggs are given either the grading AA, A, or B, with AA being the highest quality and B the lowest quality. Eggs are graded by interior and exterior qualities—for example, their air cell, yolk, and shell.

This link provides the food quality labels the USDA uses when a processing facility pays the USDA to grade the quality of the product:

Conclusion

In conclusion, shopping for meat and animal products can be confusing, but with the help of this blog, you can begin to understand what some common labels mean. It is important to remember that certain labels do not mean the nutritional content is different. The nutrients and vitamins you get in an organic product are the same as what you would get in a non-organic product. Hopefully the information in this blog will help you to make more informed choices when shopping for groceries!

 

References

Dunckel, M., Schweihofer, J., & Kuschel A. (2021, April 6). Hormone Label Claims. Michigan State University Extension. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/hormone-label-claims

Earnesty, Dawn. (2013, Sep 6). Organic: What does that really mean? Michigan State University Extension. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/organic_what_does_that_really_mean

McEvoy, Miles. (2017, Feb 21). New Allowances for Including a “Non-GMO” Statement on Certified Organic Meat and Poultry Products. USDA Blog Archives. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/09/21/new-allowances-including-non-gmo-statement-certified-organic-meat-and-poultry

Owens, Rachel. (2021, July 16). Grain-Fed vs Grass-Fed Beef- What’s the Difference? NC Cooperative Extension. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://union.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/07/809396/

Penn State Extension. (2016, Sep 14). Grass Fed vs. Grain Fed Beef. Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://extension.psu.edu/grass-fed-vs-grain-fed-beef

Penn State Extension. (2018, March 7). Grass-fed Beef Production. Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://extension.psu.edu/grass-fed-beef-production

Smith, Monica. (2012, June 29). Organic foods: Understanding the labels. Michigan State University Extension. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/organic_foods_understanding_the_labels

Smith, Victoria. (2019, Jan 30). Understanding the “No Added Hormones” Meat Label. NC State Extension. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://homegrown.extension.ncsu.edu/2019/01/understanding-the-no-hormones-meat-label/

U.S Department of Agriculture. (2015, Aug 10). Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Retrieved March 27, 2023. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/meat-and-poultry-labeling-terms

U.S Food & Drug Administration. (2022, May 10). What You Need to Know About Egg Safety. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/what-you-need-know-about-egg-safety

U.S Food & Drug Administration. (2023, Jan 17). Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=1240.61

U.S Food & Drug Administration. (2022, April 27). What You Need to Know About Juice Safety. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/what-you-need-know-about-juice-safety

UF IFAS Extension. (n.d.). Purchasing Different Types of Eggs. UF IFAS Extension solutions. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/archive/hot_topics/families_and_consumers/purchasing_eggs.shtml

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. (n.d.). USDA Certified Organic: Understanding the Basics. U.S Department of Agriculture. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/organic-certification/organic-basics

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/09/21/new-allowances-including-non-gmo-statement-certified-organic-meat-and-poultry

 

 

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Posted: April 5, 2023


Category: Agriculture, Food Safety, Health & Nutrition, UF/IFAS Extension
Tags: Agriculture, Food, Food Labels


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