Labels can be very confusing!
So, you’ve started eating better, you are trying to make more eco-friendly choices, and you are starting to feel really good about the changes you are making, but… are consumer labels fooling you? Today, you almost can’t pick up any product, from food to clothing and toys, without seeing an eco or green term or label, but often the labels mean very little. Companies are seeing the push for more natural and organic products, and are finding ways to pass their products off as such by giving consumers a “feel good” label. In this post I will quickly run through some of the labels and what they really mean.
Eco-Friendly – With this label you would assume that the product is good for the environment but usually this is a marketing ploy. There is little if any regulation for this label. Look for accompanying messages like “Eco-Friendly- Made from 100% recycled rubber”, this shows how the product is good for the environment, without a blanket, unverified statement.
Bio-Degradable– Products with this label sound as if they will decompose quickly and leave little effects on nature. When reading this label, look for a noted time frame of decomposition. Items that are considered truly biodegradable should breakdown with in a year, though many take much longer. Be on the look out for wording like “certified compostable” and always follow any directions given.
Recycled– With this label, items sound like they have been rescued from the landfill and processed entirely into a new and valuable product, however, on its own this label is just not enough. Look for a % of recycled materials, for example “80% recycled materials” and of course the higher the percentage the better.
Natural– This label sounds like the product is derived from nature, that the ingredients are wholesome, and the product is unaltered or processed minimally, however, this label means very little and is misleading. There is not a lot of regulation surrounding this term, though with meat it does indicate that there are no artificial ingredients, but for everything else it really means nothing. Check labels and do research on a product with this label to make sure that Natural is in fact what it is.
Organic– In food items this label gives the impression that the item or ingredients were grown without pesticides, fertilizers and that they contain no GMOs. In non-food items this label sounds like the materials were grown in the above manner and that they were processed in the most minimal ways. In both cases this label is almost always true, however, even if a product says “organic” it cans still have up to 5% of non-organic materials or ingredients and should an item be labeled “made with organic”, it can contain 30% of non-organic materials or ingredients. The USDA and GOTS, which focuses on goods and textiles, have guidelines for their labels, making their labels a trustworthy buy.
Grass-Fed– Whether you agree with the nutritional benefits of grass-fed meat or not, this label gives the feeling of an animal living and eating in a pasture, that the animal is humanely treated and that the meat is organic, however, that is not always the case. This subject and label is tricky because the ASA (a branch of the USDA) recently said that tracking the validity of “grass-fed” animals is often beyond their control because all cows eat grass at some point in their lifetime. Grass-fed should mean that after the initial time with its mother, a cow (animal) is fed only grass or sometimes during winter months alfalfa, which is as close to grass as possible. These animals are supposed to be grain free. Grass-fed does not mean organic, as some organic meat animals are fed organic grain. Grass-fed doesn’t ensure consistent free-range of a pasture, though grass-fed animals aren’t usually confined. Grass-fed also doesn’t guarantee humane treatment. If you are choosing grass-fed you should stay away from marketing phrases like “grass-fed and grain-finished” and gravitate toward statements like “grass-fed and grass-finished”. You should look for a logo from a trusted third party like from American Grassfed Approved or the Food Alliance. Also note that only beef, lamb, and goat meat can be exclusively grass-fed, chickens and pigs are unable to live on that diet and should never say “grass-fed”.
Vegetarian-Fed– This label or statement sounds as if an animal is fed a very healthy diet, but it is very misleading. Chickens need protein and are not naturally vegetarian. Essentially this statement means that the chickens were not fed animal by products, such as other ground up chickens (sometimes male chicks are ground up for this purpose), and that animal waste (poop) is not in their diet, which happens on some livestock farms. The idea is very similar for pigs and pork products. This doesn’t mean that the vegetarian feed was organic or even healthy, it most likely contains soy and GMO grain.
Pasture Raised– This brings images of an animal living its entire life frolicking in a field. The truth is many co-ops have different requirements, but usually this means at least 120 days on a pasture during the growing season and access to a pasture for the remainder of the year, and while free-range chickens only are required 2 sqft, those pasture-raised usually end up with 100+sqft per chicken. Pasture Raised doesn’t mean organic or grass-fed, though they could be, Pasture Raised pertains more to where they eat, than what they eat. As being pastured is a more natural existence for an animal, this is a good way to go, but look into the farm for specific practices.
Certified Humane– This logo would seem to ensure complete humane treatment of an animal during its entire lifespan, including the butchering, but in reality this logo isn’t so simple. While there are requirements to get this logo, their standards aren’t always considered humane. For example, Humane Farm Animal Care, the organization that gives this logo, does not require outdoor access for animals, and while they audit slaughterhouses, they only ensure standards are met to the American Meat Institute’s standards… basically humane is in the eye of the beholder… however, they are making some change in the industry. There are also a few other “humane” logos, American Humane and Global Animal Protection, both have their own issues as well. When you see any “humane” logo, definitely take some time and look into the company and farm that is making these claims, many times the logo is justified, but sometimes the standards that you have as humane will not have been met.
Non-GMO– This label signals that no pesticides or genetically modified organisms were used in a product. Purchasing items with the logo to the left ensure a higher chance that claim is legit. While many products claim to be non-GMO, the Non-GMO Project, is North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance.
A Special Look at Eggs
Eggs are a very tricky subject and they come with tons of labels. Below are some labels or statements that you might see on egg cartons and what they mean for eggs specifically.
- Natural– A gimmick…all eggs are natural
- Hormone Free– A gimmick, all egg laying hens are prohibited from getting hormones.
- Barn Laid– Hens are not confined in cages, are allowed to perch and have restricted space to flap their wings. They do not have access to the outdoors and are usually debeaked (partial removal of beak to prevent injury to other chickens)
- Cage Free– Hens are not confined in cages, they are free to behave normally but do not necessarily have access to the outdoors. These chickens are not debeaked.
- Free Range/Free Roaming– Hens are not confined in cages, are allowed to perch, have normal behavior habits, and DO have some access to the outdoors (how much depends on the farm). These chickens are not debeaked.
- Pasture Raised– Hens live much of their lives in the outdoors and they are not debeaked. This doesn’t mean that they are organic or that they are grass fed exclusively, as chickens can’t live on grass alone.
- Organic– Hens are not confined in cages and are allowed to behave normally. These chickens are not debeaked and have access to the outdoors. They are also fed with organic feed.
Is this the only list or explanation that you will need… well no, but think of this list as a beginners class and use it to do more research. The bottom line is knowing more about the company and/or farm that produce the products you buy is your best line of defense in knowing what the labels mean. Often buying products with these logos and certain claims increase the cost, knowing what you are paying for is a plus. Happy shopping!
Bet + fam 🙂