That shiny food marketing label often looks far better than it is. Some are downright absurd if you think deeper into it. And here are my thoughts on them.
On Meat Products:
Antibiotics-free: Means what it says and nothing more.
Antibiotics are used on farm animals in crowded conditions to allow more animals to survive till slaughter in unsanitary conditions. Overuse of antibiotics in animals creates antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria which ultimately ends up in us. No antibiotics is always good.
However it does not mean the animals are raised in significantly more comfortable conditions though it may imply healthier ones. (See how the Dutch does it).
Cage-free: Take it literally…not in cages.
Just because the animal is not in a cage does not mean it is not crowded together with thousands of its brethren in barns…
Corn-fed/Grain-fed: If this is seen on a US product, this is redundant. Unless otherwise specified, everything is raised on corn/grain here, from cows to chickens. They would stuff corn into grasshoppers too when it comes down to it.
And it is not necessarily a good thing. If corn is not part of the natural diet of an animal, the nutrient profile of the meat changes, and it is not likely to be for the better. For beef at least, you get only a fraction of Omega-3s and other “good” fats.
Fish + corn? Does not compute…but some farms do that anyway.
Free-range: Good attempt…but it may not be what you expect.
The USDA regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside, which makes the term somewhat meaningless.
Grass-fed: Cows eat grass. Sheep eat grass. The fact that we actually need this label just demonstrates how weird our farming has become.
Apparently there is a distinction between grass-fed and 100% grass-fed too, which is whether the animal spent the last couple months on grain or not. Purportedly, the meat tastes better if not 100% grass-fed.
It may not guarantee that the animal is allowed outdoors either. The grass can always be cut and stored for later consumption by a confined animal.
Hormone-free: Means what it says and nothing more.
Hormones are used to make the animals grow faster and fatter, reducing the time to slaughter. The problem is not so much with the resulting animal but rather what happens to the excess hormones after the meat is eaten.
Is it good for you? Never. Is it bad for you? *Shrug*. No one knows because there is little research done on long term effects on people. (Why waste money funding research detrimental to your business?) There is some suspicion that it causes early puberty and other problems.
Well, better safe than sorry.
Nitrite/Nitrate-free: Who is to argue with WHO when they say “Processed Meats are bad for you?”
Nitrites and nitrates are part of the curing process for processed meats such as sausages. Maybe we’ll be safer if we can achieve the same effect without them…
If in doubt…just accept it that this is better.
Skinless: Nothing but a waste of good food in an attempt to follow fad diets.
The odder thing is that you are charged more for it. Things don’t make sense does it?
Pasture-raised: As animals should have been raised right from the start.
Animals appear to be given a chance to eat their natural diet but with supplements when low in supply or just absent, like during winter.
Does not imply organic though, nor does it actually mean the animals are always outdoors. Depends on the farm.
Should still be a notable upgrade from the usual animal though…I think.
Vegetarian-fed: An absurd assertion. What they probably want to say is that “we don’t turn our animals into cannibals” but writing “vegetarian” is just silly.
Chickens and pigs are omnivores. Chickens will happily chomp down rodents, centipedes, maggots, earthworms and many other creepy-crawlies. Pigs will scavenge animal waste and carrion if given the chance. Turning them into vegetarians mean they are deprived of part of their natural diet.
Oh and being corn fed is entirely vegetarian.
On non-animal products:
Gluten-free: Only useful for people with Celiac disease or some other gluten allergies.
For everyone else, not important, and not worth the extra cost. This is sometimes placed on foods with no gluten to begin with, which can make it a joke.
Nut-free: Again, only useful for people allergic to nuts.
For everyone else, not important.
Sprouted: This term came from the idea that sprouted grains are better.
Grains are hard to digest. When grains sprout, enzymes are released to break down the stored nutrients for the plant to grow. Theoretically it should mean the grain will then be easier to digest and hence more nutritious.
However not everything sprouted is all good for you. Some release bits of toxin when sprouting. To be fair, it is unlikely there will be any bad effects from consuming them. Potatoes are one example.
Low Calorie: Pointless term placed in the limelight.
Calorie counts can serve as a general guideline but are generally inaccurate enough to make any detailed use of it pointless. Things in food don’t come neatly separated into components. Any additional food processing to remove calories also removes nutrients from it. So a low calorie food might also equate a low nutrient food (junk food) unless saved by the chemical cavalry.
And watch out for the use of artificial sweeteners in place of natural sugar. Some of those sweeteners don’t break down into nice products in the gut. (Like Aspartame into Methanol).
Low Fat/Fat Free: An absurd food modification meant to take advantage of the low fat fad diets.
Fats in food serves two purposes. One is as a solvent for fat-soluble nutrients such as Vitamin A. The other is to provide the fatty acids we need to make hormones and other fat based components. If deprived of fat intake, the body will need to spend more energy to create them from other raw materials. Feeling weak and tired?
Removing fats also make food taste bad so manufacturers have to add sugar and other chemicals to make them palatable again.
One little catch is that many industrial poisons are usually fat-soluble too so they tend to accumulate in fats. However most of the animals we eat are not top tier predators so (hopefully) it should be fine to overlook this.
Anyway avoid this like the plague it is.
No added sugar: Not a bad thing to have. We already consume more sugar than we should in most cases. Not having an additional heap of it helps…
Organic: The in-thing at the moment. Organic is awesome right? Maybe not as much as one might think.
Organic does not mean the food is more nutritious or tastier. It just means there is no or minimal usage of chemicals in the production. In other words, it may not make you healthier but it should not make you sick.
The term “organic” itself is silly though. All living things are organic on this planet by a certain definition of this word.
I’ll go with it though. Better than nothing.
Preservative-free: Move aside salt and sugar. Chemical preservatives are prevalent now to extend shelf life and hence increase profit margins.
This is another one of those…”we have insufficient evidence that X is bad for you” (yeah right…) items. If benzoates and sulfates do not sound that appetizing to you, perhaps it is best to avoid them.
An alternative preservative might be “alcohol”, which would theoretically vaporize upon cooking, leaving no residue in cooked food.
Or the food item can simply be frozen where it will practically last forever…
As with all things nutrition, whatever floats your boat…