Updated: Jul 23, 2019
These days, it's nearly impossible to make it through a grocery shopping trip without having to decipher between empty marketing terms and genuine regulation. Understanding the difference can make a significant difference on your health and your wallet.
"Organic" is one label you can trust. Organic means the company had to go through rigorous third-party testing to meet the USDA's criteria. Organic food cannot ever be genetically modified, treated with antibiotics, hormones, or synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Animals raised for organic meat must have organic feed and have access outside.
"Natural" is less straightforward. The USDA defines this term as "containing no artificial ingredients or added color and is minimally processed". That's a great start, but it makes no mention of how the food is produced or what it's treated with. It makes no mention of hormones or antibiotics. It intentionally confuses consumers into thinking a product is healthier or more nutritious than it may actually be. The FDA is stepping in to make this term stricter by the end of the year.
"100% Grass Fed" and "Pasture Raised" are easily confused terms because they sound so similar, and in truth are very similar. Grass Fed means the animals were fed only grass their entire lives, and research shows their products are generally higher in nutrition. Pasture Raised animals have continuous access to pastures and eat grass most of their lives, except in winter when they are fed grains. Both are more nutritious options than conventionally raised animal products and contain less incidence of E. Coli bacteria.
Unfortunately, there isn't tight regulation yet on these terms since the USDA does not perform on-site audits like they do for the term organic. However, companies can pay for third-party testing to prove the quality of their products to consumers. Look for the American Grassfed Association certification or stamp on your favorite dairy products to be sure!
Interestingly enough, "Hormone-Free" or "No Hormones Added" can only apply to beef since hormones are not allowed in raising poultry or pork. The USDA requires documentation by the producer showing that no hormones were used in the cattle's lifespan. Keep in mind, however, that animals have naturally occurring levels of hormones that are still present even if no further hormones were added.
More terms you may come across:
Free-Range: This term applies only to poultry and is regulated by the USDA. It indicates simply that the animals have been “allowed access to the outside.” The USDA does not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside.
Cage-Free: The term refers to hens that are not raised in cages, but it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors. There is no standard definition of “cage-free,” but it generally implies that the birds are free to perform natural behaviors.
rBGH-free: These products are from animals not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). rGBH is a genetically engineered hormone. There are health concerns for both cows and humans exposed to the drug. Buying organic dairy products is another way to avoid rGBH since its use does not meet the organic criteria.
Wild Fish: The “wild fish” label indicates that the fish was spawned in the wild, lived in the wild and was caught in the wild. “Wild-caught fish” may have been spawned or lived some part of their lives in a fish farm before being returned to the wild and eventually caught. For sustainable fish, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of the most sustainable seafood choices, or look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label.
Farmed Fish: This refers to the rapidly growing industry that raises and feeds fish for human consumption in tanks or large wire pens anchored in coastal areas or other large bodies of water. Also called aquaculture, fish farming is expanding to offset the global decline in the wild fish catch. Fifty percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is now farmed. Catfish and other farmed fish are fed mostly soybeans and corn, while farmed tilapia eats a variety of algae, seaweeds and other aquatic plants. The use of open ponds and net pens or cages pollute local waters with fish waste, excess feed and antibiotics and spread disease and parasites to sensitive wild marine species. The rapid growth of farmed shrimp ponds has led to deliberate destruction of thousands of coastal acres of mangrove forests that serve as fish nurseries, protect against storms and provide local economic livelihood.
What Does This Have to Do With Your Health?
Becoming familiar with these food terms can benefit your health tremendously and make you a much savvier consumer and member of the planet.
If your health is your primary goal, should you care about the welfare of animals raised for food? Yes. The health of the animal is passed on to the consumer. A sick animal that's been raised in small quarters, without adequate sunlight, and exposed to antibiotics is going to have nutrient deficiencies and pass on antibiotic resistant bacteria to you, which has contributed to the giant problem of antibiotic resistance that medicine is facing today.
Likewise, a cow that is fed grains or soy its whole life is not eating its natural diet. This changes the gut bacteria of the cow, allowing more E. coli bacteria to grow. Whether that bacteria gets ground into the hamburger meat or washes downstream to a produce farm and shows up in our lettuce, we are at a greater risk for a deadly food-borne illness.
It's all connected!