Food packages are covered with so many claims that can make a simple trip to the grocery store confusing and time-consuming. You want to make good choices for your family, but you don’t want to be fooled by marketing. So which claims are important–and which don’t mean much? Here’s what some of the most common and popular statements really mean. Just remember that the front of the package is mostly marketing. To get the full story, it’s important to flip over the package and read the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel.
This only means the product doesn’t contain anything man-made, such as synthetic food dyes. It doesn’t mean it’s healthy, organic, or simple, and doesn’t relate to farming practices or nutritional value. In fact, items labeled “natural” may still be loaded with sugar and sodium and contain very few nutrients (case in point: some sodas and potato chips are labeled “natural”).
On plant foods, it means they were grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. With animal foods, it means those animals didn’t receive any antibiotics or growth hormones or eat anything grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The organic seal means that the USDA has certified the farm as organic.
On eggs, this means that the hens were not kept in enclosures (cages), but they may still live indoors. “Free Range” eggs come from hens that are given access to the outdoors–but it doesn’t mean they went outdoors or that the outdoor environment was nicer than a concrete slab. If you’re looking for eggs from hens that foraged outside for at least part of the time, look for a “Pasture Raised” claim.
This one is tricky because all beef cattle eat grass for a certain amount of time. Most cattle are then transitioned to grain for the rest of their lives, but some are kept on grass. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll want to seek out 100% grass-fed beef, sometimes called “grass finished” beef.
NO HORMONES ADDED
On beef or milk, it means the cattle weren’t given supplemental hormones to increase their growth (or milk production). On poultry, it’s just marketing because poultry aren’t allowed by law to be given hormones anyway. And keep in mind that “hormone free” milk and meat don’t exist because animal products naturally contain hormones.
This means the food isn’t genetically modified or doesn’t contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms). GMOs are the result of plant breeding that transfers traits, like the ability to resist certain kinds of pest, from one plant to another by changing the DNA. There are currently just a handful of genetically modified food crops: corn, soybeans, potatoes, papaya, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, summer squash, and a new type of non-browning apple. Many packaged foods contain ingredients made from genetically modified corn, soy, and sugar (like corn syrup and soybean oil). Keep in mind that you’ll see this label on lots of foods that don’t have a GMO counterpart anyway, so it’s just used for marketing purposes.
If a product is fair trade certified, it means that it was made according to certain social, environmental, and economic standards. That includes safe conditions for workers and sustainable farming practices.