We live in a world of double speak. Politicians say one thing and mean another. Companies use deceptive marketing techniques to hide the truth and emphasize the good points about their products.
You don’t need all that confusion when it comes to the food you eat so, in this article, we’re going to explain what’s meant by the terms “grass-fed”, “free-range”, and “organic”. We’ll also explain what “natural” means, although we’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself whether or not you think “natural” is natural.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
What Is “Natural” And What Isn’t?
Don’t be swayed when you read the word “natural” on packaging. In fact, when you do come across it, ask yourself how natural you think the item really is.
“Natural” can refer to the food company’s intention. For example, maybe they started out with real apples from an apple tree, and so, in the minds of the manufacturers, that makes them natural. Who cares what happened between picking the apples and packaging them, right?
“Natural” is a term sanctified by the USDA to mean one thing. It means no artificial ingredients or artificial colors were added to meat and poultry. It can also mean minimal processing was used. But think a bit deeper here. Does that mean a cloned animal could be natural? According to the USDA, yes. And do you really want to be eating cloned animals?
“Naturally-raised” is a term used by the USDA to mean no unnecessary antibiotics and no hormones were added to a cow’s diet. But watch out, because it doesn’t mean anything about how the animal was treated.
Organic Has Many Facets
Defining the “organic” labeling term can really open your eyes up to what is really going on in farming and within food companies. Did you know that often synthetic fertilizers are used, and that pesticides, and even sewage sludge can be used for fertilization? Well, organic means no synthetic fertilizers, no pesticides, and no sewage sludge.
But “organic” also goes beyond this. It includes the following:
- No antibiotics given to the animals unless they are sick
- No hormones given to the animals
- No genetically modified organisms used
- No irradiation used in processing
- Animals are given organic feed, that is, 100% organic feed
- During processing, there has been no contamination of the food
- All farming or food processing plants must keep detailed records of what is happening and when
Organic DOES NOT mean grass-fed.
There’s an independent agency of the USDA who certifies food as “organic.” In fact, there are different levels of organic. It’s not just black and white:
- 95 to 100% organic – 95-100% of the product ingredients are organic. You can still include up to 5% non-organic ingredients and call something organic.
- 79 to 95% organic – Up to 30% of the ingredients are non-organic, yet these companies can still use the term in their marketing.
- Less than 70% organic – This one is the most mind-boggling of all. A company can use more than 30% non-organic ingredients and, as long as they list on the label which foods are not organic, they can get away with it.
Free Range Does Not Mean Born To Roam
The term “free-range” makes you think the chickens and other poultry animals are happily running around on a farm, going wherever they want to go whenever they want to go there, right? Not so!
There are no guidelines specifying how many minutes a day free-range birds have to be outside or about how big that open space has to be. Therefore, “free-range” simply means the bird has access to outside. That’s it. The term usually means they have access to the outdoors 51% of the time.
Grass-Fed, But Is It Better?
Grass-fed cattle could be eating anything from grass like the stuff you have on your front lawn, to bamboo or even the types of grasses found around marshes or alongside the road. They could also be eating the leaves of weeds, or even bushes and alfalfa.
After a year spent out in the grass fields, these cows may move into the feedlots to “beef up” and gain weight over three to four months. They’re then able to eat hay or cereal grain crops, and the farmers can legally use the term “grass-fed.” Some farmers give their cows added vegetables, for example, leftover pumpkins after Halloween, to add nutrients such as beta-carotene into their diets.
Over the course of a cow’s entire life, it is storing up nutrients in its muscles for us to eat. The better the quality of soil in which the plants it eats grow, the greater the amount of nutrients are packed into the flesh of the animal.
Grass-fed beef is higher in these nutrients:
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin E
- B vitamins
Grass-fed beef also contains more omega-3 fats than commercially-raised cows. It tastes better and all the famous chefs prefer using it over commercially available meat. However, grass-fed beef also needs more marinating because it can be tougher.
When you hear that some chickens and turkeys are pasture-raised, you may immediately think of memories from your youth or a movie, in which these birds were allowed to run wild and free in a wide-open pasture. That’s what you want, right?
Well, that’s not what the farmers think when they say their birds are pasture-raised. They like to keep them in pens where they can get access to them every two to three days, to give them some fresh grass to gobble down.
Pasture-fed cows don’t only eat what grows in pastures. They’re allowed to eat out of the feed bins that could contain grains. The question to ask is “did the animal only eat pasture?”
Hormone-Free Or No Added Hormones – Does It Really Matter?
Early humans who farmed and ate beef always ate the bulls (the males) of the herd, leaving the cows (the females) to reproduce, to increase the size of the herd. Bulls have the highest levels of testosterone (hormones). However, commercial farmers use neutered bulls, which are called steer, and steer have a lot less testosterone (hormones) in their meat than bulls. What’s interesting is that even when steer are given hormones, their hormone levels don’t come anywhere near the levels in un-neutered bulls.
What does this mean?
You don’t always have to be frightened of hormones causing your harm. Meat that contains added hormones doesn’t increase your risk of developing degenerative diseases or cancer. If it did, our ancestors, who ate a substantial amount of meat from bulls (containing several times more hormones than our meat today), would have experienced these types of diseases. But they didn’t.
So, when it comes to meat (beef), you don’t always have to worry about added hormones. Typically, any amount that was given to the animal will be small and unlikely to cause you harm.
Poultry and pork are a bit different.
It’s illegal to give either of these animals hormones. This means that the labels “no hormones added” and “no added hormones” are simply telling you the obvious.
The bottom-line is that the labels “hormone-free” and “no added hormones” are nothing special. The hormones added to beef are typically harmless, and it’s illegal to give hormones to pork or poultry. Don’t pay extra for foods with labels that indicate that no hormones were added to your food.
The government recommends always make sure this term is on your meat packaging. They are afraid that some meat might get into the food supply that they couldn’t trace if there were an issue with it. For example, let’s say that meat is contaminated with E. coli. As long as it is certified, the USDA can inspect it and track down the source of the E. coli. When the meat is inspected, it is also graded. This gives you the luxury of knowing whether the meat you’re consuming is one of the best, highest grades of meat our there, or whether it actually belongs in hamburger.
“Vegetarian-fed” means that animals and their byproducts weren’t used in the animal feed. There aren’t any added benefits to this type of food, other than being able to sleep at night, knowing you didn’t contribute to any killing of any animals.
“Cage-free” means the animal wasn’t in a cage, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it was outdoors. Most people want “cage-free” to mean the poor chickens aren’t de-beaked, for reasons of anti-cruelty, but that’s not the reality here. No one checks whether or not this claim of “cage-free” is true.
The term “heritage” is reserved for cattle, pigs, chickens, and turkeys that are similar to those that the Pilgrims ate. In other words, these varieties of meat are like the meat that existed before the food industry started tampering with meat to make more profit. Heritage meats are generally thought to be higher in omega-3 fats, and more nutritious.
For example, the “Barbie doll” turkeys and chickens we eat now have very different genes to the ones the Pilgrims ate. Ours now have big breasts, which can make it hard for the animals to move around. They have been bred to produce more meat.
Heritage turkeys and other poultry, on the other hand, taste gamier and are shaped differently. They don’t have big breasts. However, they generally taste better and chefs love using them on their fancy menus for holidays because their patrons rave about the taste. The birds last longer in the refrigerator and they don’t dry out like Barbie doll poultry.
When you read on a label or menu that a food is wild game, you immediately think of a hunter out there with his gun and traps, catching food to bring home to the family, don’t you? Well, maybe that’s how it was in the old days, but not now. Wild game on a label or menu means the animal was raised on a wild game farm. These varieties of birds don’t taste as gamey as the true wild game that you’ll find out roaming the countryside. And if the menu says venison or elk, you can pretty much expect the same thing.
OK, here we go with another government terminology fiasco. Fat is bad, right? Sure, according to the label gods. If a food is high in fat, it’s not healthy! If a food is high in saturated fat, it’s not healthy. That only means one thing – a food could be labeled “healthy” and loaded with polyunsaturated, free radical-producing fats that cause cancer. (1)
“Healthy” also means the food must contain at least ten percent of one or more of the following nutrients:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Fiber or protein
Excuse me, but what happened to selenium, vitamin E, vitamin D, the B vitamins, molybdenum, boron, iodine, magnesium, manganese, copper, and zinc? In short, the term “healthy” on a label is just another gimmick to make us feel better about what we are buying.
This label is pretty ridiculous, really. The definition of food that is from a good source of riboflavin, for example, is food that only contains ten to nineteen percent of the daily estimated value. So if you’re supposed to get 1500 mg calcium per day and a cup of yogurt provides you with 230 mg calcium or 15 percent of what you need for a day, it’s a good thing, according to the powers that be.
What’s good about that? You still need 85% more for the rest of the day! You’ll have to make up your mind on this labeling. In the meantime, look at the percentages, please. Go for the foods that at least contain 25 or 30% of the estimated daily value of the nutrients you need.
“Fresh” pretty much means it’s right out of the fields. It can’t be frozen. It can’t be cooked or heated. But, get this, it can be irradiated! Well, the last time the research came out on irradiation, it said that the process kills the living enzymes in the food. Aren’t enzymes something that we need for health?
Fat- Or Calorie-Free
“Fat-free” means a food less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. “Calorie-free” doesn’t mean the food contains zero calories. It means it contains fewer than five calories.
Fair trade means that the migrant workers who helped bring the food to market weren’t overworked for pennies. They were given a fair wage and had working conditions that weren’t horrible.
Buying Guide For Fruits And Vegetables
Fruits and Vegetables low in pesticides:
- Corn (not paleo)
- Sweet peas (not paleo)
- Sweet potatoes
- Sweet bell peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
- Potatoes (not paleo)
- Green beans (not paleo)
Keeping your pesticide residue levels low allows your body to detoxify itself. It also reduces your risk of getting cancer.
What Can You Do?
A great solution is to shop local and in season as often as possible. A good rule of thumb is to stop by your local farmers’ market on a weekly basis to get most of your shopping done. This way, you get to speak directly with farmers about how they treat their animals, produce, and soil. If you’re in the USA, to check whether or not a specific food is in season in your specific state, you can use the Eat Well Guide. This article pretty much sums up the terminology you need to survive the double speak of the food industry.
That’s a lot of information to digest. Please let me know if you need any clarification on anything. Post in the comments or shoot me an email.
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