Organic foods and labeling practices are commonly discussed with the assumption that “organic” equals “healthier.” But this isn’t necessarily true! You can read my articles on organic foods here.
When it comes to labeling of meat and eggs, there is still a lot of consumer confusion. Some terms are regulated by a government agency and others are not. The USDA is the government agency that regulates the labeling of poultry, eggs, and meat products.
Here is a list of some of the commonly seen claims on labels and the USDA definition. These definitions and more information on USDA regulations can be found at www.fsis.usda.gov.
- Free- range: The animal is provided shelter and has continuous access to the outdoors.
- Cage- free: The animal is housed in an enclosed area and is able to roam free inside that enclosed area.
- Pasture-raised: There is no USDA definition for pasture raised.
- Grass fed: The animal is fed solely through foraging and is not fed any grain or grain product. The animal can forage cereal grains in their vegetative pre-grain state. The animal must also have continuous access to the pasture during the growing season.
- No hormones added: The USDA has never allowed hormones or steroids to be used in poultry, pork, or goat products, so all of these products are hormone free whether they are labeled so or not. Beef products can be labeled as ‘hormone free’ if there is sufficient documentation that the cows were raised without the use of hormones.
- No antibiotics added: Meat and egg products can be labeled as ‘no antibiotics added’ if there is sufficient documentation that the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics.
- Natural: Meat and egg products can be labeled as ‘natural’ if they are minimally processed and have no added artificial ingredients. It is important to note that there is no regulation for using the word ‘natural’ on any label that does not contain meat or egg products.
- Humane: The USDA does not have a definition for the term ‘humane.’
- Organic: A product can be labeled as ‘organic’ if it meets a set of standards enforced by the USDA.
Are these products nutritionally superior?
Unlike organic, there can be a difference in the nutrient content of some animal products depending on how they were raised and what they were fed. Grass fed beef is leaner than grain fed beef and claims to have more omega-3 fatty acids. The leaner product may be better for one’s health, but many cuts are lacking the rich marbling of fat most Americans are accustomed to in beef products, therefore grass fed beef may be less appealing.
The difference in omega-3 fatty acids has been shown, but the extent of this difference and the impact it can have on one’s diet and health is still questioned. Red meats should be limited in one’s diet and consumed in small portions, so the increase in omega-3s may not be significant enough to increase the total amount of omega-3 fatty acids one consumes in their diet.
The same goes for the omega-3s and other nutrients in eggs from chickens that were able to forage for some of their diet. The types of plants the animals were able to forage and what other feed is supplemented in their diet can lead to varying levels of all nutrients in the resulting meat and egg products.
The Bottom Line:
These products can be much more expensive that those not labeled as grass fed, free range, etc. Meat, eggs, and dairy supply important nutrients to our diet and do not need to be avoided. If you can’t afford these pricier choices, or don’t want to have to think too hard at the grocery store, it is still safe and nutritious to consume regular meat, dairy, and eggs!
Or, if you choose to be “meat and egg free,” that is a fine choice too, as long as you are getting quality protein from another food source.
Hope that clears things up a little bit!
Food Labeling Fact Sheet. USDA Website. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling.