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During every trip to the grocery store, we're assaulted by LABELS. 

"Free range!"

"All Natural!"

"No antibiotics! No hormones!"

They sound great, right? But do they REALLY mean anything?

The truth is, many of these words are just...
 

 

Of course, it's critical to check labels, and to read ingredients as we get to know what's FOOD and what's just...well...a swallowable product. But what about those front-of-the-package labels that are slapped on our food - our meat, specifically - to make us THINK we're buying something great? 

(As Inigo Montoya would say: "you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.")

Here are the most common labels that mean ALMOST nothing.

"Certified"

This means nothing. ALL meat sold in the United States (at least, the kind sold in supermarkets, farm stores, butcher's counters, restaurants and any other recognized establishment) MUST be certified by the USDA, whether Oscar Meyer weiner or the most expensive cut of steak. 

What it really means: "It is legal for us to sell this product."

"Natural" "100% Natural" or "All Natural"

This means ALMOST nothing. Many companies use it to make customers THINK they're buying something of greater quality than they actually are - think buying an "all natural" hot dog. Perhaps you think it's better than a hot dog that DOESN'T say "all natural." 

That might be true. But this label has very little to do with the quality of the meat itself. 

Perhaps the words "all natural" conjures up images of a cow grazing on pasture, being tended lovingly by a small farmer. In truth, although it DOES mean there are no synthetic ingredients within the hot dog itself - artificial flavors or colors - this label says nothing about the quality of the meat. It could be from anywhere - most likely, from the factory farm. Unfortunately, factory farmed meat is not healthful - our meat is only as healthful as the circumstances in which that animal was raised. And the word "natural" doesn't help us differentiate on that topic.

When it comes to non-meat products, the same thing applies: the "all natural" label simply means there are no synthetic ingredients. It doesn't speak to the quality of the product beyond that.

What it really means: "we didn't grow this product in a test tube or add synthetic ingredients or manmade chemicals."

"No added hormones"

This one might seem surprising. If you see the words "raised without added hormones" on poultry or pork, it's more marketing jargon than an actual statement of quality. Why? Because it's ILLEGAL to use added growth hormones on poultry or pork raised in the United States. Meat with this marketing claim can still be from inhumane operations. That's why it's important to try to know the source of your food to the best of your ability!

Many companies use this on their food to make themselves look good, often with a disclaimer in tiny text: something like "it is illegal to use hormones on pork raised in the United States." 

This doesn't mean that every brand using this label is of low quality. Many high-quality brands use this lingo as part of their marketing strategy. Just don't let it be your only determinant in choosing your food. If you've got a smartphone with you, Google the brand. What are their ethics? Better yet, seek a local farmer.

(If you see the words "hormone free," it's also illegal: ALL living things have hormones, thus saying meat is "hormone-free" is actually 100% false. Not to mention, impossible.)

What it really means: "we didn't do anything illegal. Where's our merit badge?"

"Cage Free"

This label simply means an animal wasn't raised confined in a tiny cage. Although they'd like you to believe a "cage free" animal was raised outdoors, it's more likely that the animal was raised jammed into a building with thousands of other animals. This term is not regulated, so any company can use it freely without ACTUALLY fulfilling any uniform standard of animal welfare.

When it comes to eggs, try seeking out a local farmer. Eggs from local sources are often much less expensive than the expensive eggs from properly-raised hens at the grocery store, and they last much longer! (Oh - and when you find a great source, remember to Eat the Yolks!)

What it really means: "we know you'll be more likely to buy our product if we say this. What it means? That's up to us."

What to look for instead

I'm a huge supporter of the local food movement, but I understand it's not accessible for everyone. Even if you're unable to choose differently RIGHT NOW, you can still feel good about having more information about the food you buy while keeping an eye out for resources near you. Ten years ago, there were NO local farms or markets carrying quality food near me. Now, there are quite a few! The movement is growing!

You can start by looking for labels that have a LITTLE more meaning - like "grass fed," "organic," or "Animal Welfare Approved." That's a great start. 

If you're looking to improve your food choices, you DON'T have to change everything all at once. Squirreling away pennies so that one day, you can buy a dozen eggs from the local farmer is a GREAT start. We don't have to vote with our dollars. We can vote with our pennies!

A note on affordability: we just bought a locally-raised half pastured pig (100 lbs. of meat and lard) for around $250, butchered, packaged and delivered. Accounting for the cost of a $100 cube chest freezer in which to keep that mountain of meat, that's still around $3.50 per pound, and along with our side of local beef, we're set on meat for the year. Buying good meat in bulk is EXTREMELY affordable; although it can take time to save the money to buy all at once. 

Feel free to forward this email to anyone who might benefit. And let me know your thoughts by sending me a tweet or leaving a comment on the facebook page!

Thanks for reading, and being a subscriber!

Lots of love,

 
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