Your Guide to Decoding Grocery Store Labels

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Wandering the grocery store can be a daunting task, especially with all the varieties of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy out there. These days, it seems like everything comes with some kind of label we don’t really understand—with new ones popping up every day! How do we keep it all straight?! 

While it’s natural to think a product has been labeled particularly because it’s pointing out a good thing, that isn’t always the case—in fact, there are some labels that could work either way, depending on the organization that is certifying the product. Below, I am breaking down the good, the bad, and the maybes of nutrition labels for your meat and poultry in order for you to have the healthiest 2018 yet!

The Good

Organic

In order to receive USDA organic certification, poultry, cattle, and pigs must be raised on certified organic land, fed organic, non-GMO feed with no added hormones or antibiotics, and must have access to the outdoors. Organic certification is strictly upheld, and guarantees the highest quality animal product.

Animals fed an organic diet also produce more nutritious meat. So in other words, this is the gold standard of labels.

Grass-Fed

Grass-fed refers to cattle that has spent most, if not all, of its life grazing on grass. Though not regulated by the USDA or other federal body, there are third-party verifications like the PCO 100 Percent Grass-Fed Certification (which requires that the beef be organic as well) and the American Grassfed Seal (which requires that the beef be antibiotic and hormone free).

Look for those specific labels when choosing your beef, as the meat from grass-fed cows contains more nutrients, as well as a healthier omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio.

Pasture-Raised

Relating only to chickens, pasture-raised is not regulated by the USDA, but is certified by the HFAC.. It guarantees the most humane practices—in order to receive this certification, chickens must be raised outdoors year round in rotating fields, with shelter to protect them from severe weather, and a minimum of 108 square feet per bird. Birds that are pasture-raised are able to eat a natural diet of plants and insects, which produces higher-quality and more nutritious meat and eggs.

Pole and Line-Caught

Pole and line-caught fish is a sustainable method of fishing that catches one fish at a time. It prevents overfishing and accidental catching of other species. Usually used for large fish like tuna, pole and line-caught fish are typically younger and smaller than traditionally caught larger fish, which means they have lower mercury levels and are healthier to eat.

Skipjack and albacore tuna should always be pole or line-caught.

Ambivalent

Free-Range

Free-range is a USDA designation that applies only to chickens, and requires simply that the birds be allowed access to the outdoors—but this could mean two minutes a day, or most of the day. It could also mean that there is a small door that chickens can use leading to a semi-outdoor space, but requires no guarantee that the chickens actually use it.

This vague detailing therefore can be confusing, and doesn’t really tell you anything about the health of the chickens you’re consuming—which is why you should look for other signs when choosing your poultry. Only poultry that is certified 'free-range' by the Humane Farm Animal Care’s (HFAC) Certified Humane program guarantees that the chickens spend at least six hours a day outdoors (weather permitting), and insists on space of at least two square feet per bird. 

Non-GMO

Non-GMO means that the food has not been genetically modified or otherwise altered in a laboratory. For meat and eggs, it means that the animals were not fed genetically modified foods. Most non-organic corn, soy, rapeseed (canola), and sugar beets in the United States are genetically modified.

The most common use of genetic modification is making crops resistant to glyphosate (a common herbicide), which allows farmers to spray it directly onto the crops without killing them. The World Health Organization classified glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ in 2015. The non-GMO label is not highly regulated, so it’s important to look for third party certification like the Non-GMO Project Verified logo or the USDA Organic seal, both of which guarantee that the food is less than 0.9 percent genetically modified.

Wild-Caught

Wild-caught fish are caught in their natural environments, and for certain types of fish, indicates a lower mercury level, higher nutrition, and more sustainable, responsibly-caught standard. Salmon is best wild-caught (from Alaska), as well as black cod (Pacific), sardines (Pacific), and albacore tuna (US).  

But certain types of seafood are overfished or caught in ways that harm the environment. So, they're better when sustainably farm-raised (like arctic char, abalone, and rainbow trout), or avoided avoided altogether (like most types of tuna, halibut, king mackerel, swordfish, and orange roughy). Look for labels like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or Sustainably Caught when purchasing wild-caught fish. 

Farmed

Farmed fish are those raised in pens, pools, or ponds, and the label varies greatly in terms of safety and health. Some farm-raised fish are kept in unsustainable, overcrowded environments, which lead to unhealthy fish with high levels of PCBs and dioxins. Similar to conventionally farmed meat, they are often given antibiotics. 

However, there are a growing number of sustainable fisheries growing healthier farmed fish—certain types of seafood are endangered or overfished in the wild, and are therefore better consumed when sustainably farmed. Look for labels like ASC Certified or Certified Sustainable when purchasing farm-raised fish. 

Cage Free

The least specific of all designations for raising poultry, the USDA regulations state that cage-free chickens not be kept in cages, but gives no stipulations about access to the outdoors or square footage per animal.

This could mean that a cage-free hen still lives in cramped, inhumane circumstances, with no access to the outdoors. However, if eggs are HFAC certified cage-free, there must be at least 1.5 square feet of space per bird—a much healthier option, and a label you should look out for.

The Bad

Corn-Fed

Corn-fed chickens are typically raised in cramped, concentrated animal farming operations (CAFOs), and not allowed to roam freely, or graze on plants and bugs outdoors. They are fed corn to help them grow bigger and faster, for the least amount of money. In addition, the corn is usually genetically modified. As a result, corn-fed chickens produce meat and eggs that are less nutritious, as well as lower in omega-3 fatty acids and several key nutrients.

Due to the cramped living arrangements and unnatural diet of corn-fed chickens, they are prone to infection and disease—so antibiotics and hormones are added to the corn. Corn-fed chicken and eggs are best avoided whenever possible, both from a health perspective, as well as from an ethical standpoint.

I hope that this guide helps you select the best choice for your health and your budget! 

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