Walk into any grocery store and you'll often see labels like "free-range," “natural,” or "cage-free" slapped on to packages of eggs, dairy, and produce. But what exactly do all of those labels mean? And why are the distinctions important?
One of the latest episodes of Z Living's show Family Style with Chef Jeff delves into the label of "free range," as chef Jeff Henderson going straight to the source: a free-range chicken farm. Find out where to watch the show.
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Check out the clip below to get the scoop on why Chef Jeff chooses eggs laid by free-range hens over other eggs. And below, learn more about how to decipher labels when you're shopping for produce.
What's In a Label? When Food Says It's "Organic"
If you frequent the fresh produce aisles of your grocery store, you’ve almost certainly compared two seemingly similar items: one with an organic sticker and one without. Organic produce has made its mark in grocery stores around the country, leaving some consumers with questions about what exactly makes a food organic.
The label “organic” is one of the most highly regulated terms in food and drug marketing. To use the “organic” label, a food must qualify for certification from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which sets strict guidelines for how food is grown/raised and processed for sale. To qualify, produce must not have been exposed to synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and meat or poultry cannot be treated with antibiotics or hormones to accelerate growth.
The end product that you see on the shelf must contain 95% organic ingredients, and the other 5% of ingredients must be included on USDA’s list of regulated ingredients.
If a label uses the term 100% organic, it must be made with all organic ingredients and processing agents.
A label stating that something is “made with organic ingredients” means that the product must have 70% organic ingredients. If you’re shopping with a local farm, be sure to ask the farmer if they use sustainable farming methods. Many small scale operations choose not to pay for certification but still are considered organic if they sell less than $5,000 worth of produce per year.
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What's In a Label? When Food Says It's "Natural"
As consumers push to increase their intake of healthier foods and produce, the shift away from processed foods has led to some clever labeling tricks by the marketers behind the food brands. The use of the label “natural” or “all natural” is one such example of how these labels might mislead a shopper to think a food is healthier than it actually is.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not define the term natural, meaning it is not as highly regulated as a defined term, like “organic.” The only regulation of the label “natural” comes from the USDA, which states that a food must be minimally processed, so that the fundamental product is not altered. The label must also include a statement determining how the food has been processed (i.e. no added ingredients, no artificial flavors).
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What's In a Label? When Food Says It's "Cage-Free" or "Free-Range"
Just like we saw on the farm that Chef Jeff visited in Family Style, cage-free hens are happier hens, as they are generally allowed a habitat that allows for more movement and freedom than a battery cage habitat. Free-range hens are given access to outdoor plots or pastures, then housed in cage free hen-houses at night for their protection. Free-range conditions (also sometimes labeled as "pasture-raised," are considered the more humane conditions of the two, as hens are free to peck and engage in natural behavior and socializations. However, cage-free still generally guarantees a more compassionate environment for the hens than traditional battery cages.
What's In a Label? When Food Says It's "Whole Grain" or "Whole Wheat"
Both “whole grain” and “whole wheat” labels should catch your eye on the grocery shelf, and for good reason! These labels mean that the wheat and/or grains in the product have not been processed to the point where they lose their healthiest components, like the bran or endosperm which contain the most vitamins and minerals. But before adding whole grain or whole wheat products to your cart, be sure to read the ingredients to check that they back up the “whole” claim.
The tricky label to watch for is the term “multigrain,” which does not ensure that the grains or wheat are not fully processed. There is also no government regulation of the term multigrain, meaning there’s no one double-checking the ingredients to make sure the product is what it’s being advertised as.
With these helpful tips and the healthy recipes from Family Style with Chef Jeff, you’re well on your way to becoming a connoisseur of all things fresh and tasty. Good luck and happy shopping!