Grocery shopping can be tough, even when you’re label-savvy. If it seems like confusing food labels are everywhere, it’s because they are! For every well-meaning certification, there are several similar labels and logos we have to sort through. At best, they draw our attention to differences between products. At worst, they trick us into buying something that isn’t what we really want.
Here are 5 of the most confusing food labels, explained.
100% Grass-Fed v. Pasture-Raised Cows
If a cow eats grass, it must live in a pasture, and if a cow is raised in a pasture, then it must be grass-fed, right? Well, kind of. In many places, grass either goes dormant or is covered by snow in the winter, so grazing animals can’t eat it. During those colder months, some farmers feed their cows grain to tide them over. That grain can include corn, oats, barley, and soy. Meanwhile, 100% grass-fed cows either have access to grazing pastures or are fed hay in a barn all year long. Both pastured and grass-fed cows usually spend a significant portion of their life grazing in open pastures.
Nutritionally, the more grass a cow eats, the better its meat and milk is for you. However, organic, pasture-raised beef and dairy products are still head and shoulders above the meat and milk produced by exclusively grain-fed cows. So buy the best your budget allows.
Pastured v. Free Range v. Cage-Free Poultry and Eggs
In my opinion, poultry has the most confusing food labels of all. Let me break it down: pastured hens live in a barn yard, free to roam and peck seeds, grains, and insects as nature intended. Meat and eggs from pastured hens contains more vitamins and essential fatty acids than conventionally raised chickens. So while they’re more expensive, you really do get what you pay for.
Free range birds, however, simply need to have access to the outside for a certain amount of time each day. This means that they can live in a crowded, covered feed lot without sides. Theoretically, they have outdoor access, but a poor little hen in the center of a stinky mass of feathers and feces will have a really tough time making it to her outdoor area.
If she’s free-range but not organic, a chicken’s feed is likely also fortified with arsenic and antibiotics to fatten her up. Yes, you read that right. We’re feeding our chickens poison, then eating them.
“Cage-Free” might be the most misleading food label of all. While cage-free hens can’t live in a cage, they can be crammed into an a hen house, never to see the light of day. It does, however, prevent you from buying eggs laid in battery cages, where the chickens are crammed in so tightly they can’t turn around.
Heritage v. Pastured Pork
Heritage pork comes from pig breeds that predate industrial farming. That means they haven’t been subjected to generation after generation of antibiotics and feed designed to make them grow quickly. Commercial pigs have also literally had the fat bred out of them (remember “The other white meat?”) during the low-fat years of the 1970s-90s, and we now know that was a mistake.
However, while many heritage pigs are raised on small farms where they are also pasture-raised, there is no guarantee they aren’t raised solely in a barn. Pastured pigs, on the other hand, live in a barnyard where they have access to natural forage and sunlight. Like us, pigs produce vitamin D when they’re exposed to the sun, so pastured pork is richer in that mineral. It also contains more micronutrients and fat-soluble vitamins like E and D.
Personally, I look for pork that’s both heritage AND pasture-raised. This is tough to find in the average grocery story, so I get mine at my local farmer’s market. You can find a farmer’s market near you here.
Organic v. Natural
I’m a major advocate for eating the best you can afford, but I’ll say it plain and simple: “natural” is NOT good value. All it means is that whatever is inside the box is minimally processed. So of course those chicken breasts are natural!
Organic, however, means that every step of the growing process has passed rigorous certification and inspection processes to insure that certain pesticides and all antibiotics, non-natural preservatives and growth hormones were not used while growing any ingredient contained in that product. You can learn more about the process here.
Organic v. Non-GMO
If you’re buying organic, you’re automatically buying food that has not been genetically modified. But the reverse is not true. Also, anyone can say their product is non-GMO because the FDA hasn’t set any standards to regulate that claim. That’s different, however, from being certified by the Non-GMO Project, which has a process it uses to certify products that can bear its approval.
Personally, I’m worried enough about GMO’s that I’d still rather buy organic just to be 100% sure I’m not being duped. And if I can’t do that within budget, I simply don’t buy it at all. Since we know many organic foods are more nutritious than conventional, I feel this is the best bang for my buck.