If you’re a health-minded carnivore, you’ve probably found yourself standing in a grocery aisle, holding two options in your hands and puzzling over the labels.
What, exactly, does free-range mean again? You pause for a moment, and turn to the other package before wondering, And is organic better?
Welcome to the confusing world of meat terminology, where it sometimes seems like a nutrition degree is necessary for decoding what you put in your fridge and your plate.
“I think there’s more confusion because of the explosion of manufacturer-created logos and marketing terms that don’t have true regulatory oversight,” says Ashley Koff, RD, who runs the Better Nutrition Simplified Program. “People are confused what to look for for.”
With that in mind, here’s the 411 on the five terms that will help you be a smarter meat eater and a handy infographic for your grocery Pinterest board:
“Natural” is a clear and meaningful meat term, insofar as the USDA has a set definition for it, explains Dawn Undurraga, RD, a nutritionist for the Environmental Working Group (which publishes a comprehensive Meat Eater’s Guide). To qualify, meat must contain no artificial ingredients or added color (gross to think about, we know), and be only minimally processed. All fresh meat, therefore, is considered natural—but it doesn’t mean a whole lot beyond that.
“Organic” is another label with a clear, USDA definition—and one the experts say you definitely want to prioritize in your shopping trip. Organic meat and poultry can’t be treated with hormones or antibiotics, and it must consume only organically grown feed. Plus, the animals are required to have access to the outdoors. “’Organic’ is a great certification, and it’s great for the environment,” says Undurraga. But looking for a combo of labels is better. In other words, organic may be awesome, she says, but organic and grass-fed (more details on that below) is potentially even better.
Animals that are considered “grass-fed” eat a diet of natural grass and other things they can forage (instead of grain, soy, or corn). The USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires that animals have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. That does not necessarily mean they’ve spent their entire lives out in the fields, however. “People think, ‘Oh, they’re out in the pasture eating grass, roaming around,’” says Undurraga. While sometimes that’s the case, other times animals still spend a significant part of their lives confined, she says. The key to knowing the difference? Shop as locally as you possibly can, says Undurraga, so you can ask questions, and go visit the farm to see things for yourself (hello, weekend field trip).
First things first: The USDA doesn’t allow hormones to be used in chicken, turkeys, or hogs. So don’t start handing out gold stars if you see a package boasting one of those meats is hormone-free. When it comes to cattle and sheep, however, some farmers do indeed use hormones. In these instances, keeping an eye out for this listed on the label may be a good idea. Just remember that there isn’t a specific certification, so you’re basically taking them at their word. Consider it an exercise in trust.
5. Raised Without Antibiotics
Antibiotics are administered to animals to help them gain more weight, but there is some concern that it is fueling antibiotic resistance in humans (you are what you eat, etc.). Determining whether or not your meat was raised on them, however, is a bit trickier. “The antibiotic claims are very confusing,” says Undurraga. “Producers can develop their own standard for what they consider to be raised without antibiotics, and within the industry there are even arguments about whether certain types of medicines are considered antibiotics.”
This much is clear: You should never encounter the phrase “antibiotic-free” (along with “no antibiotic residues,” “drug free,” “chemical free,” and “no antibiotic growth promotants”) on packaging, because the USDA has banned producers from making such claims. It does allow producers to use variations of descriptions—think along the lines of “raised without antibiotics”—but it doesn’t provide a uniform standard or definition.
So what can you do?
Again, it’s all about getting local, Undurraga says. “Go beyond the traditional grocery store aisle and really try to learn more from your local farmers.”
Or just stick with Koff’s general meat-consuming fallback: “I think the simplest is to look for the USDA logo,” she recommends. “It may not deliver everything… but it’s got government-regulated standards.” Truly stumped? “Choose plants instead.”
Need some help decoding groceries found in the other supermarket aisles? Here’s our guide to reading food labels...
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