A Closer Look At Food Labels

When was the last time you took a look at the meat selection at your grocery store? Like, really looked at it? Even the smallest neighborhood market has an incredible variety available for you to choose from — and we’re not talking beef, pork, poultry kind of variety. We’re talking stickers on stickers on stickers. Labels on labels on labels. But what does any of it really mean? What’s the difference between the package of ground beef with the picture of happy, smiling cows frolicking in a seemingly endless pasture and the package of ground beef with the bright green “ORGANIC” sticker?

The truth is, those stickers and labels can mean a lot of things and it’s not always the same from company to company. It’s comforting to see words like “Organic” and “Grass-Fed” and even “Natural” on the packages of meat we buy for our families, but unless you have a solid understanding of what each of those words really means, you’re flying blind each time you head to the meat department.

USDA ORGANIC

The “USDA Organic” mark is a fairly comprehensive label regulated by the USDA.

  • Make sure it says “UDSA Organic,” and not just “Organic.”
  • For livestock, any feed must be also be 100% USDA certified organic. This diet may include corn and/or grain, however, access to pasture for grazing is required.
  • Cattle must have unrestricted, year-round access to the outdoors and cannot be confined for an extended period of time. Cannot be kept in overcrowded quarters or in unsanitary conditions.
  • Zero exposure to pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, GMOs. Vaccines are commonly used to prevent illness.
  • For food processing: To have the USDA Organic label, 95% of the ingredients used must be certified organic. However, a phrase such as “Made with Organic Ingredients” only has to use 70% organic ingredients.

It’s important to note that the USDA Organic certification can be a very expensive prospect for a farm or food processor to take on. The farms must pay for their own testing and certification, and it may be cost-prohibitive for a small farm to obtain.

 NATURAL / ALL-NATURAL

This label is usually added on at the processing level and is more about the quality of meat for the consumer, rather than the diet or upbringing of the cattle. It is not regulated like the USDA Organic label and it can vary between companies. Generally speaking, it means:

  • Minimally processed
  • No Antibiotics/Added Hormones/Steroids
  • No artificial coloring, flavoring, binders, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients
  • No salt or other chemical additives like monosodium glutamate. These are often injected into chicken breasts and other meat products prior to packaging, which results in that all too familiar slimy texture and engorged appearance.

An all-natural label will typically come with additional information on the package, so it’s not a bad idea to pick up a couple packages and compare the differences in pricing, packaging, ingredients, and quality of the meat. Sometimes you might find an all-natural purveyor that you care for better than an organic one

GRASS-FED VS. GRAIN-FED

Grass-Fed

  • Reserved for cattle fed a diet as close to nature as possible, which results in leaner and more flavorful meat. Cows are raised in fields where they are allowed to roam freely and fresh, all-natural grasses. No substitutes like alfalfa are ever included.
  • Open pasture promotes a healthier, less stressful, and more sanitary life for the animals.
  • Diet also allows for a lot of muscle growth and much higher Omega 3 and CLA production.
  • Antibiotics are only administered in the event of illness.

Grain-Fed

  • Cows are typically raised in commercial feeding operations.
  • A corn and grain majority diet leads to a fattier cow, and a much more marbled product.
  • Many steakhouses will exclusively use grain-fed cattle since they tend to be more flavorful as a result of the additional marbling.

Grass Fed / Grain Finished

  • This is often referred to as the best of both worlds. The cattle are pasture raised, but also have grain supplemented in their diet during the last three to five months before production.

NOTE: Much of the meat that is advertised as “Grass-Fed” is often supplemented with corn-and grain finishing for better taste. If you’re trying to find a purely grass-fed product, make sure the label says 100% Grass-fed.

   It’s important to remember that while these labels provide a degree of understanding about the meat you’re purchasing, additional information can be gained from the rest of the packaging as well. For instance, All-Natural beef by definition is not necessarily antibiotic or hormone-free, but it may very well be. This information will be noted on other stickers, labels or otherwise on the packaging. The same is true for grass-fed, grain finished, humanely raised, and even Prime, Choice, Select and Standard quality so be sure to read the packaging thoroughly if you have specific requirements in mind.

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