Now more than ever, people are concerned about what is in their food and where it comes from. There are so many healthy, sustainability and animal welfare labels that it’s difficult and overwhelming to know exactly what you’re buying.
According to a 2012 Nielsen study 59% of consumers were confused by food labeling practices. Clever marketing ploys, ingredients disguised as natural and ever changing labeling terminology make consumers want to run for the hills and live off the land. In fact, labeling has become so confusing and challenging for the public to understand that we now need technological help just to go shopping.
To aid consumers in tackling the overwhelming task, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment recently came up with an App to help consumers live healthier lives. The App aims to cut down on the need for consumers to do countless hours of research, in order to find safe products to buy and it contains safety ratings for more than 120,000 food and personal care products.
Although it is impossible to cover all food labeling practices here, the following is a great place to start. It will help you navigate the various food label categories and teach you which products are best for the sustainability and welfare of animals and the environment.
Organic vs. Natural
You probably already know that organic foods differ from natural foods, but do you know why or how they differ? According to Consumer Reports, most people don’t realize that the “natural” label is essentially meaningless. Foods labeled “natural” are no different than their conventional equivalent, and marketers only use the term to trick consumers into mistakenly assuming they are getting something more wholesome or pure than conventional products. The only exceptions to this rule are natural meats and eggs which, unlike conventional products, cannot be treated with artificial additives or preservatives.
On the other hand, organic foods are strictly regulated by the USDA and must be certified as such before the organic seal can be used. According to the USDA, an organic food cannot contain the following items:
• Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
• Certain preservatives with potential health concerns (i.e. Sodium Nitrate)
• Synthetic fertilizers
• Irradiated ingredients
• Most antibiotics (except Penicillin)
• Most synthetic pesticides
Organic foods must also be grown in organic soil free from any lingering pesticides or other non-organic substances, and organic livestock must be raised with all organic feed. There are two distinct grades of organic certification, each of which varies based on the percentage of organic ingredients a food contains. According to the USDA, 100 percent organic foods are just that; all the ingredients and processing techniques are certified organic. The second grade is simply termed “organic” and can include up to 5 percent conventional ingredients. Both 100 percent organic and organic foods will carry the USDA seal, but those in the first category will be specifically marked as 100 percent organic.
Other products can contain organic ingredients, but only foods with at least 95 percent organic ingredients are certified by the USDA to carry the organic seal. Some products may be “made with organics” and must have at least 30 percent organic ingredients. These foods must use an asterisk to clearly identify which ingredients are organic.
So, which is the more sustainable choice? The answer may be quite obvious in terms of environmental outcomes. The Mayo Clinic notes that organics are designed to limit pollution (especially in soil and streams) and promote more natural farming and livestock settings. There is considerable debate, however, as to whether organic foods are healthier. Some studies show organics provide slight increases in certain vitamins and minerals and small reductions in pesticide residues, but this does not inherently mean these outcomes are more beneficial. For instance, pesticide residues in all foods are regulated by the USDA and are well below toxic levels. There is also contention surrounding animal welfare, but simply having the organic label does not mean the animals are treated any differently than those fed with conventional feed. Overall, the animal impact between conventional, natural, and organic meats is relatively similar.
Even though there is no difference in animal welfare, the choice is clear in terms of environmental benefits. The USGS and National Pesticide Information Center both recognize the dangers of pesticide pollution in the air and in groundwater--where half the nation gets its drinking water--because of run-off from fields. These pollutants threaten ecosystems and endanger wildlife water supply. The next time you’re at the store, go for the organic option.
Cage-Free vs. Free-Range
The first two are similar in many ways. For instance, both types of animals must be provided with unlimited feeding access and be allowed to roam freely. Though cage-free and free-range may seem to denote the same thing, there is one crucial difference. Free-range animals are allowed unlimited outdoor access while cage-free animals are typically kept inside their entire lives.
Although the USDA regulates these categories, many animal welfare activists have argued that these labels mean relatively little regarding the happiness or humane welfare of the livestock. For example, poultry may be classified as cage-free, but there is no limitation on the number of animals living in the same facility. That means farmers and ranchers can cram animals into unusually small spaces, which means unsanitary and debilitating conditions for the animals. The same argument can be applied to free-range animals. Though these animals have access to the outdoors, these areas can be fenced and there is no regulation stating the outdoor area must accommodate all animals. These terms apply specifically to poultry and only to the environment in which they are raised and not to what they are fed (all three categories can be given antibiotics and can be fed GMO sourced food).
Due to these limitations, some farmers began a system known as pasture-raised that exceeds the standards provided by cage-free and free-range labels. Whole Foods, a global health food and grocery store, defines its pasture-raised animals as those which are allowed considerable outdoor access in suitable land (i.e. pastures and woodlands) equipped with natural flora to encourage the birds to behave as they would in the wild. Despite the appeal of pasture-raising, the USDA has not yet developed specific regulations, as they deem the number of variables too complex. So, while this system appears to be the best choice for animal welfare, it should be noted that the pasture-raised label likely means different things for different farmers. Unless you can be certain the pasture-raising techniques meet the standards mentioned above, it is probably safest to go with free-range.
Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed
These terms apply specifically to cows. The primary difference here is outlined right in the name; grass-fed cattle graze in pastures and grain-fed cows are given feed mixtures primarily made of corn. This may seem like an unimportant difference, but choosing grass over grain has several beneficial consequences. First, because grass-fed cows require open pastures for grazing, they automatically are given more “breathing” room to roam over large areas of land. On the other hand, grain-fed cows can be penned up in small areas because they are forced to eat from troughs. A second big difference comes with the nutritional content of the meat. A story by NPR noted that because grass-fed cows can eat clovers, which contain high amounts of fatty acids, their beef has roughly twice as much heart-healthy omega-3s.
The best choice here--for yourself and your meat--is grass-fed. The nature of grass-feeding practices ensure cattle are given greater access to open outdoor spaces, and even though this does not necessarily mean these animals are treated fairly overall, it is at least a step above and beyond penned-up grain-fed cows.
Wild-Caught vs. Farm-Raised
These terms apply specifically to fish. The debate between wild-caught and farm-raised fish is fierce and rife with misinformation. On the one hand, wild-caught fish are those captured in open waters where the fish are born and raised--as the name suggests--in the wild. Until the fish is captured, there is little or no human interaction. Farm-raised fish, on the other hand, are born in captivity and raised either in enclosed tanks or in cages dropped into the shore waters of lakes, seas, and oceans.
Animal welfare activists are especially concerned with farm-raised fish and argue that new diseases or pollutants from the farm-raising process could leach into surrounding waters, causing problems for wild fish populations. This concern used to be valid for nearly all farm-raised fish and contamination of other wildlife was common thanks to improper handling. Today, however, standards for farm-raised fishing processes have significantly increased and problems experienced in the past are quickly being resolved.
Even so, according to Chris Kysar, owner of California Organics, Market and Café in Nevada City, CA, “Farmed fish still has a lot of problems. For example, most farmed salmon are fed with food coloring added to die the flesh pinkish-orange. Without the die, their flesh is often a translucent, sickly white. In our store we require our suppliers to source wild AND sustainably caught fish.”
In terms of animal welfare, though, wild-caught is leaps and bounds better than farm-raised. This is because farm-raised fish are often packed into overcrowded cages and given heavy doses of antibiotics to prevent disease spread. Wild-caught fish are not subjected to this environment because they live in their natural habitat. However, from an environmental perspective, wild-caught fish populations are actually suffering thanks to over-fishing in many parts of the world. According to CBS News, most of the fish supply worldwide comes from farm-raised fish because wild fish populations have dropped significantly in the last several decades making it more difficult to meet demand.
The choice between wild-caught and farm-raised is a tough one. It seems both sides demonstrate benefits and harms to the environment and animal safety. There is a great way, though; to ensure your fish--whether it is farm-raised or wild-caught--comes from sustainable farming or fishing practices. Friends of the Sea is a nonprofit organization that works to uphold conservation efforts by monitoring fish farms and fishing companies to determine whether their practices are healthy for both the environment and marine animals. Greenseas is a similar organization that ensures fishing practices are conducted in a manner that is safe for dolphins. So, when in doubt, buy seafood with the Friends of the Sea or Greenseas Dolphin-Safe labels.
The labels discussed above are the most commonly used and recognized, but there are some other important terms to keep in mind. Many meat production companies claim they use humane practices when raising their animals, but--like pasture-raising--the USDA does not acknowledge these claims. Standards for humane treatment are bound to differ widely between companies, and there is no feasible way of regulating these supposedly humane practices. Thus, like the “natural” label, don’t be fooled into thinking foods marked “humane” are any better than foods without the label.
Meat production companies also have the option of listing their product as antibiotic-free or hormone-free. Both claims are monitored by the USDA and companies using these terms are required to provide documentation to prove they don’t perform these practices. It is important to recognize, though, that the federal government prohibits hormone injections in pork products. That means that any package of bacon or sausage you see with a hormone-free label is simply a marketing ploy.
Now that you know to pick out the organic, free-range, grass-fed, marine-friendly options when shopping, you can feel content knowing you’re making ethical decisions to improve the environment and ensure livestock are fairly treated. The topics discussed here are very controversial, and while people are free to choose whichever food options they desire, it is important to remember our actions not only affect ourselves and the people we live with, but they impact the world at large and all the plants, animals, and humans living on and in it. So, choose sustainability and future generations will thank you for it.
Nielsen (2012): Fifty Nine Percent of Consumers Around the World Indicate Difficulty Understanding Nutritional Labels.
EWG (2016): New for Earth Day.
CBS News. (2014): Wild-caught or farmed? The diner’s dilemma.
Consumer Reports. (2016): The difference between labels on organic and ‘natural’ foods.
Mayo Clinic. (2017): Organic foods: are
they safer? More nutritious?
National Pesticide Information Center. (2015): Air and pesticides.
NPR. (2010): The truth about grass-fed beef.
USDA. (2017): The national list of allowed and prohibited substances.
USGS. (2016): Pesticides in groundwater.
Whole Foods. (2013): Why pasture-raised chicken is different (and how to cook it!).
Go to InsightDirectory.com for more information on food labels.