Understanding Food Labels

| 6/6/2012 9:57:00 AM

Packaged foods are a cause of stress to many a grocery shopper these days. Use the helpful guide below to help you navigate your supermarket’s trickiest label claims. We'll be adding more all the time.

Label Reading Hint: Beware the clever adjective!  

Lite Potato Crisps vs. Potato Chips; Grandma’s Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies vs. Chocolate Chip Cookies; All-Natural Lemon Frosting vs. Lemon Frosting; Artisan Cheese Bakes vs. Cheese Puffs. Descriptive language may make you think something is either healthier or more delicious than it really is. Think beyond the marketing copy.

"Free range" refers to chickens being allowed to range freely outdoors where they can eat whatever grass, weed seeds, insects and worms they choose. This results in more nutritious eggs and meat for consumers, and more healthy, humane conditions for the birds. Some producers abuse this term and label their eggs as “free range” when in fact all they have done is open a door to allow their chickens to range in an outdoor area of bare dirt or concrete, with no pasture in sight. Some producers choose a modified system that involves keeping birds safe from predators by confining them in pens or inside electric fencing, and moving the pens frequently onto fresh pastures. Thus, pastured birds may be true free-range or penned, but either system is correctly referred to as “pastured.” And either system is a better choice than products that come from industrial factory farm conditions. (From Free-Range vs. Pastured: Chicken and Eggs; To learn more about egg cartons, see How to Decode Egg Cartons.)

Grass-fed animals have access to pasture for grazing, but the presence of this term on meat labels does not tell you how long the animals had such access. Grass finished animals must have been fed exclusively on grass, which is the natural diet of a ruminant (grazing) animal, for at least 90 days prior to slaughter. Check out some of the benefits of grass-based farming from The Amazing Benefits of Grass-Fed Meat:

  • More humane animal treatment
  • More nutritious meat and dairy products
  • Reduced flooding and soil erosion
  • Increased groundwater recharge
  • More sustainable manure management
  • Less E. coli food poisoning
  • More fertile soil and more nutritious forages
  • More diverse and healthier ecosystems
  • Reduced use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow unsustainable corn and soy 

There is no set a definition for "natural," even though you'll find it on numerous food packages.