Cage-free, grass-fed, organic…oh my!

What does that food label really mean?

After exposing the benefits of a whole-food diet and the perils of processed foods this month, let’s dive a little deeper into the labels of whole foods. Because while it can be easy to identify processed foods (just look for a bunch of packaging, added sugar, fake fats or sodium, or claims like “fat-free” or “low-fat”), non-processed food labels can be just as—if not, more—confusing.

Here are some of the most common labels you’ll find on meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods.

Cage-free eggs. According to the Humane Society of the United States, most chickens are raised in cages that average only 67 square inches of space. There’s not even enough room for these poor birds to spread their wings.

Cage-free chickens can roam around, dust themselves off, and lay their eggs in nests, which are key natural behaviors. But that doesn’t mean these birds can go outside. Instead, they may spend their lives on the floor of a big warehouse-type facility with thousands of other chickens. So when you buy cage-free eggs, you’re helping prevent some animal cruelty, but not necessarily all of it.

Free-range eggs. Like cage-free eggs, the definition of free-range eggs is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Free-range eggs must come from hens that are allowed some access to the outdoors.

But the label can be misleading. The USDA permits as many as 100,000 birds in a facility with just a few doors—which don’t necessarily have to be opened to let the chickens outside.

Pasture-raised eggs. Although this isn’t a USDA-regulated term, these are the types of eggs you really want. Especially if they carry “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” stamps, which means the chickens that produce the eggs are guaranteed access to outdoor space.

My daughter and son-in-law have started keeping chickens on our summer property in New England. They range free across our one-acre of grass and woodland, with adjoining wetlands on three sides. They eat ticks, grubs, and other insects, along with high-quality chicken feed. At sundown, they go inside a wooden coop, which protects them from roaming coyotes, fisher cats, and the occasional raccoon. At sunup, we let them out again. They lay plentiful eggs, and our health-conscious neighbors ask to buy them.

A growing number of towns now allow backyard chicken farming. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of these areas, I encourage you to consider having your own flock. The best hope for our diet and our health is local, small-scale farming. And you can’t get any more local than raising and growing your own!

Fair trade. These labels are increasingly showing up on produce, beverages (especially coffee and tea), chocolate, nuts and seeds, and even seafood. You can also find fair-trade clothing and personal care products.

There are a variety of fair-trade labels, but none are regulated by a governmental entity. So you may need to do some homework to ensure the label really does “walk the talk” for the fair trade mission—which includes environmentally, financially, and socially responsible partnerships with farmers.

A fair trade certification should guarantee that these growers, who are often indigenous people in Africa, Asia, or South America, are being treated and paid fairly, and that they’re using sustainable farming methods. Since all of this can be expensive, fair trade foods may cost as much as 30 percent more than their conventional counterparts.

Grass-fed. This label applies to meat and other products from cattle, bison, goats, sheep, and pigs. Grass-fed animals have unfettered access to pastures at all times, and aren’t fed a grain-based diet. And unlike conventionally raised animals, they usually aren’t given antibiotics or growth hormones. The American Grassfed Association offers reputable third-party certification.

I’ve often written about the health benefits of grass-fed meat. It’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to help lower your risk of breast, prostate, colon, liver, and skin cancer.

Non-GMO. In my experience, this label isn’t worth much. Sure, many genetically-modified (GM) crops are engineered to be grown with glyphosate—the herbicide found in Roundup®, which is a disaster for the environment and your health. But non-GMO crops can still be conventionally grown using pesticides and artificial chemicals.

Big GM crops include corn, canola, sugar beets, soybeans, and wheat. If you truly want to protect yourself from these and other GM foods, choose organic—which, by law, can never be genetically modified.

Organic. This label is the best for the environment and your health. Anything that carries an organic label has to adhere to rigorous USDA standards, which ban artificial chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs.

Organic farmers may use composted animal manure as fertilizer, and control pests with natural predators, crop rotation, and planting diverse crops. Not only does this produce the highest-quality food, but it also helps reinvigorate soil destroyed by factory farming.

Organic standards require that animals be treated humanely, have access to pasture, and be fed only organic feed. That’s the main reason why organic meat, eggs, and dairy are often more expensive than conventional versions.

If you can’t always afford organic, check out last July’s issue of Insiders’ Cures. In it, I disclose the Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables that are most contaminated with pesticides. I advise buying organic versions of these foods whenever possible.

You can also shop locally. If you buy food within 50 miles of where it was grown or raised, you can even check out the farm or ranch yourself. After all, there’s no need for labels when you or a trusted neighbor produces your food. Happy eating!