Going to the grocery store these days can be overwhelming. What’s the difference between natural and organic? What does “free range” really mean? Read on to discover what food labels say about the foods you’re eating.
To be certified as organic by the USDA, produce must be grown on soil that hasn’t had synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other prohibited substances for three years before harvest. Animals must be fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, and not given antibiotics or hormones.
READ MORE: Organic Valley Farmers Pioneer a Movement
Beef and other animals that are labeled grass-fed freely grazed for their own grass and forage before being processed, or were fed grass, forage, hay or silage at a feedyard. Meat not labeled grass-fed means animals were fed a high-energy diet of grass, forage and grain.
Natural products contain no artificial ingredients or added color, and are minimally processed. Labels must contain a statement explaining to consumers what is natural about the product, such as minimally processed, which means that the product was not fundamentally altered during processing.
When you buy chickens and other poultry with a cage- free label, it means that those animals were allowed to roam freely in a room, building or enclosure before being processed. However, cage-free does not necessarily mean the birds were free to roam around in the outdoors.
Gluten is a naturally occurring protein in wheat, rye and barley. To be labeled gluten- free, a food must have a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million. People with celiac disease, in which gluten can be irritating, are able to tolerate this small amount. Gluten is not harmful to people without celiac disease.
SEE MORE: Gluten-Free Recipes
This label is required by the Food and Drug Administration that provides details on a product’s nutrient content, such as calories, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and more. The label also shows the percentage of your daily needs each nutrient provides in a single serving.
Country of Origin Label
The Country of Origin label, or COOL, tells consumers what country in which a food or product was produced. This label, required by the 2002 Farm Bill, is on chicken, lamb and goat, as well as certain seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, ginseng, and nuts.
To be certified as heart healthy, a food must meet requirements set by the American Heart Association regarding the amount of fat, cholesterol and sodium per serving. In addition, the food must contain 10 percent or more of the daily value of one of six key nutrients.
The hormone-free label on beef means it has been adequately proven the animal was raised without supplemental hormones. Labels referring to “no added hormones” on poultry and pork products may be misleading since there are no hormones approved for pork or poultry.
As a rule of thumb, a food can be considered low fat if it has 3 grams or less of fat per 100 calories. This means 30 percent or less of the calories are from fat. However, the low fat label does not address total calories in the food. Low-fat foods may be high in sugar content and calories.
Foods with a “Non-GMO” label are verified to contain less than 1 percent of genetically modified ingredients. Non-GMO is not the same as organic. Non-GMO does not address the use of synthetic pesticides, artificial flavorings, etc. All organic products are non-GMO, but the reverse is not true.
READ MORE: The Great GMO Debate
Animal products with this label indicate that the animals were allowed to access the outdoors. The amount of access to the outdoors is not regulated nor is the size of the outdoor space. A free-range label on chicken packages or egg cartons may not mean birds roamed freely at all times.