Remember the “good old days” when eating well simply meant getting plenty of red meat and potatoes, and maybe an occasional iceberg salad?
We’ve sure learned a lot since then. And our health is a whole lot better for it.
But with all this new knowledge, shopping has become a whole lot more complicated too. And making the right choices at the supermarket can get downright confusing.
Demystifying the food labels on meat and eggs
Now, instead of just grabbing some ground beef, steak or eggs you’ve got to wade through a sea of choices. And while having a choice is usually nice, it can be a mixed blessing.
If you’ve ever found yourself standing in front of the meat case staring at food labels reading organic, cage-free, or pasture raised with no clue which one to choose you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Well it’s time to end the confusion, and quit the guessing. Because today we’re finally going to demystify those food labels. So the next time you head out to the grocery store you’ll know exactly what you’re putting in your cart.
1. 100 percent organic:
If the label says 100 percent organic, you’re in luck. When a food is marked 100 percent organic, it’s as straight forward as it gets. It’s a well-regulated category, which has a strict legal meaning.
The animal has to have been fed a 100 percent organic diet. And no antibiotics or growth hormones can have been used.
No, I’m not repeating myself. It turns out the USDA definition of “organic” isn’t the same as “100 percent organic.”
To earn the organic label, a product only needs to be 95 organic. The other five percent of the product can be non-organic, but must come from a strictly regulated National List of approved ingredients.
The list contains a variety of items such as the pheromones used on crops to confuse insects and prevent infestation. As well as certain vaccines which are used in livestock since antibiotic use is strictly prohibited.
You can’t use antibiotics, pesticides, growth hormones, bioengineering, petroleum, ionizing radiation or sewage-sludge-based fertilizers to produce organic foods.
Conventionally raised, factory farmed poultry and laying hens live their whole lives in “battery cages” with five to 10 other hens. Each bird has only 67 square inches of space (smaller than a standard sheet of paper) with no room to move comfortably. The tight spaces make stress, disease and aggression common.
Factory farm chickens don’t ever breathe fresh air or see daylight. And, typically, they’re housed in a brightly lit building with the lights on 24 hours a day seven days a week.
When your eggs are marked cage free, it means simply that. The hens don’t live in cages. Instead, they live in a building, room or enclosed area where they can roam around. Although a step up from cages, the reality is, the hens often have little more space than before. And they still don’t get sunlight or fresh air.
If your cage free eggs are also marked Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certified, it means the hens were given at least 1.5 square foot of space each.
4. Free-range-chickens and poultry:
Free-range living conditions are far better than those on conventional factory farms are. And they’re a step up from cage-free environment as well. But the reality of free-range still likely won’t live up to the image you have in your head.
For chickens, free-range means no cages. Instead, they live in a barn or yard with enough space for each chicken to have two square feet of living room.
Free-range chickens must technically have access to the outdoors at all times. But there are no regulations governing that outdoor space.
So while some free range chickens may have easy access to the space and grass to roam around in when they get there, others may have inadequately small doors and concrete pads with little to no grass. And in reality, free-range birds spend very little time outdoors.
Free-range is a better deal for other livestock such as cows, pigs, and lambs than it is for the birds. For beef to get the free-range food label, the cattle must spend a minimum of 120 days a year outside.
However, there’s still no regulations regarding the food they eat, the amount of space they have, or the condition of the land they’re occupying.
Pasture raised is actually the closest thing to what most folks envision when they hear the terms cage-free and free-range.
For poultry, each pasture raised bird has to have 108 square feet of outdoor space, with access to shelter in case of inclement weather. There’s also a guarantee that the soil is regularly rotated and refreshed. This prevents the build-up of ammonia, improving living conditions and cutting back on disease.
For cattle, they must spend the majority of their lives on clean, open range pasture. They can be brought indoors when the weather is bad, but only to preserve their health.
And the pasture life isn’t just better for the cows, it’s better for us too. Researchers say pasture-raised meats having significantly lower levels of inflammatory omega-6s, which are far too high in the Western diet. And they have higher levels of healthy CLA as well.
To save money, and produce larger animals, industrial farms feed their livestock a grain based diet which may also include other odds and ends such as soy, animal meats, feathers, hair, blood, animal waste and more.
But cattle raised on grass or hay tend to be healthier. And they’re healthier for us too. Recent research found meat from grass-fed cattle has 147 percent more omega-3s than that from conventionally raised cows. Plus grass-fed beef has far lower levels of inflammatory omega-6s.
You will often find the grass-fed label on pasture-raised beef. But it’s important to look for both to be sure the pasture-raised cows didn’t have their feed supplemented with grain.
It’s true that meat and egg labeling has become complicated. But now that you’ve been armed with the right information, your next shopping trip should be a breeze.