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Behind the labels

| 04 Jan 2013 | 01:56

By Tamara Scully Navigating the aisles of the supermarket is getting to be a complicated affair. While it’s headache enough to sort through ingredients lists and nutritional content, labels have gotten so crowded – and sometimes, misleading – that picking up a dozen eggs can be a bewildering experience.

You reach, conscientiously, for the cage free eggs, until you see the free range eggs – which sounds better. Is it? Free range technically means the birds have access to the outdoors. But did they actually ever go outdoors? Were the inside conditions crowded and miserable? Is anyone checking?

The truth is that “free range,” like many of the claims on the grocery store shelves, is not officially regulated. Those claims that are standardized can still raise more questions than they answer. This guide is meant to help define - or debunk – the marketing lingo.

Storewide American Heart Association Heart-check Logo: Based on FDA regulations for single serving-sized food portions, the AHA runs nutritional tests to determine eligibility for the Heart- check logo. All certified food meets AHA’s dietary standards for heart health.

Certified Naturally Grown: A third-party alternative to organic certification, which can be expensive.

Fair Trade: Certification by Fair Trade USA that the product is produced by farmers who receive a fair price, are free to organize, have safe working conditions and make a living wage.

Food Alliance Certified: A comprehensive third-party certification that addresses fair working conditions, is traceable through the supply chain, and has a focus on packers and distributors as well as growers.

Gluten-free: This food contains no gluten, or a “harmless level” of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye and barley that can cause reactions in those who are sensitive to it. Products without any wheat, barley, rye or triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) are naturally gluten-free. Many processed foods -- beer, licorice, candy, cold cuts, gravy, french fries -- do contain wheat ingredients as additives. Almost every aisle in the store, aside from fresh produce, will have items with hidden gluten.

GMO Free / Non-GMO: This food contains no genetically modified organisms, whose DNA has been altered through genetic engineering. This is generally not certified, relying on honesty alone. The Non-GMO Project does offer third-party certification. Genetically engineered products in our food system include the vast majority of corn, soy, canola, cottonseed oil; as well as papaya, squash and salmon. Many of these are found in processed foods. Genetically modified foods do not need to be labeled in the USA.

Hormone /Antibiotic / rBGH-free: This applies to meat and dairy products and means the animals were given no antibiotics or growth hormones. rBGH is a growth hormone that enhances milk production. Antibiotics are commonly used sub-therapeutically in crowded confined animal operations of all kinds, while beef production can involve growth hormones.

Low/Reduced/Free labeling claims: Fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, calories, sodium and sugars are covered by regulations and must fit government definitions. While helpful, the labels don’t indicate that the product is a healthy choice. It might be a healthier choice than the full-fat/sugar/calorie item, but still might contain artificial ingredients, additives or other questionably healthy stuff. Use for guidance, but cautiously.

Organic: This is a term you can generally trust because it’s defined by federal regulation (except for seafood). Produce or grain products carrying this certification were grown without pesticides, herbicides or biotechnology (an umbrella term that includes genetic engineering). Processed products must contain a minimum of 95% certified USDA organic ingredients in order to carry the label and cannot have been irradiated to slow spoilage. This has nothing to do with farm size, ownership or environmental stewardship. See below for organic meat and dairy definitions.

Natural: No artificial additives. This has nothing to do with growing practices.

Note: Label claims such as “a diet high in Omega 3 may be good for your health” don’t have to be scientifically proven. Likewise, a cereal made “with whole grains” may contain an insignificant amount of whole grain. One that contains a day’s supply of certain nutrients can still be loaded with sugar. READ THE INGREDIENTS. The fewer and the purer, the better off you are.

Poultry and pork Note: In the USA, poultry and pork raised for meat cannot be given growth hormones, but antibiotics are allowed.

Animal Welfare Approved: Only family farmers are eligible, and all animals must be raised on pasture.

Certified Humane: Animal welfare standards are clearly outlined.

Grade A: Since USDA grading is voluntary, and paid for by the poultry producer, Grade A is the only grade you’ll see. It means poultry is free from defects, fully fleshed and meaty.

Natural: Minimally processed, no artificial ingredients, no added color. This has absolutely nothing to do with the way the meat is raised.

Organic: Requires access to pasture, no antibiotics, and no animal by-products in feed.

Free-range: Applies officially to poultry only, and simply indicates some outdoor access was available. It doesn’t necessarily mean the birds ever actually went outdoors, and doesn’t indicate anything about the indoor conditions.

Hormone-free: All chicken is hormone-free. USDA regulations prohibit poultry growers from giving hormones and steroids to their birds. This label, while true, is misleading.

Beef Note: In the USA, beef and dairy cattle can be given grown hormones as well as antibiotics.

Animal Welfare Approved: Only family farmers are eligible, and cows must be raised on pasture.

Certified Angus Beef label: This is a brand name. The brand has its own quality standards which rate for meat quality and characteristics. The branded meat is traceable back to the producer and is owned by the American Angus Associaton. It does not cover common livestock raising practices, such as the use of hormones, the type of feed, or environmental concerns.

Certified Humane: Animal welfare standards are clearly outlined.

USDA grass-fed: Cows (or goats or sheep) must be on pasture during the growing season. Does not rule out antibiotics, hormones or other practices.

American Grassfed: This third-party certification requires a strict 100% grass and forage diet, allows no antibiotics or hormones, and has animal welfare standards.

Prime, choice, select: Prime is the highest USDA grade and means the meat is from young, well-fed beef cattle and has abundant marbling. Choice is the second grade and means the meat has less marbling than Prime. Select is the third grade and means the meat is leaner and has less marbling than Prime and Choice, and some cuts may need marinating or braising.

Eggs Note: Egg labels are not reliable indicators of how the hens were raised. The only government-regulated egg label is organic. Other than third party certificates, labeling is on the honor system.

Cage-free eggs: Supposedly not produced by birds in battery cages, which are very small cages used in very crowded poultry houses. Most likely still from birds in crowded indoor conditions.

Free-range: There is no official meaning for free-range eggs (or meat, for that matter).

Organic: Organic eggs are defined as coming from hens who are fed only certified organic feed (by definition this means all-vegetarian, too), must have “access” to the outdoors, and are not in cages.

Pastured or Grass-fed eggs: No definite meaning unless third-party certified, where the standards are made clear.

Vegetarian Diet: The hens were not fed any animal by-products. This says nothing about any other growing practices.

Fish Farmed: Fish are raised in a confined situation. Controversial, particularly for salmon.

Wild-caught: Caught from the ocean, lake, river- its natural habitat.

Dolphin-safe: Used on tuna. Indicates that fishing practices did not catch or harm dolphins, but some dolphin-safe labels have been found to be misleading.

Organic: The USDA has not decided what organic means when applied to seafood, so the claim is meaningless.