Extension @ Your Service – Don’t Let Labels Fool You

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Image of womanMany people use labels and packaging to guide their nutrition plans and food choices, but are you really buying what you think you are? Package labels claims can provide a wealth of information about the product including how the food was raised, what the food ate, how the food was processed, and what the food does and does not contain. But several label claims we depend on are unverified claims and can lead us to the wrong conclusions.


Some labels are meaningless. For instance, the gluten-free label is added to the packaging of many foods because many people believe gluten-free foods are healthier. In reality, gluten-free foods can sometimes be higher in saturated fat and sugar, and lower in protein. For some, gluten-free is not a choice due to allergy or celiac disease. However, gluten and whole grain products are safe and a healthy part of ones’ daily diet.

No Added Hormones

A “No Added Hormones” label only applies to beef and lamb products. You may see this label on pork and poultry as well, but in small print, the label will say that hormones are not normally given to those animals. Although hormones are used in beef and lamb, they may only be used to replace what would already be present naturally if hormone-producing organs were not removed. It is important to remember that hormones occur naturally in all animals just like you and me.

Raised without Antibiotics

Animals that have not received routine-use or even one-time use of antibiotics throughout the animal’s life can use the “Raised Without Antibiotics” claim without third-party verification. Farmers’ take care of their animals and do what is best to keep their animals well and growing properly. When health issues do arise in animals, it is necessary to provide them with the care and medicine they need to get better. Antibiotic withdrawal periods must be observed before sale of the animal for the antibiotics to leave the animal’s system.

All Natural

The “All Natural” claim is another unverified claim that applies to any meat and only addresses how the animal was processed and not how the animal was raised or  fed. The “All Natural” label claim is useful for determining if there are any food additives in the product. Food Additives are used to maintain or improve safety, freshness, nutritional value taste, texture and appearance. Many people select the reddest meat because they believe it is the freshest, when in fact, it may contain an additive to make the color last longer. It is perfectly safe to buy and cook meat that has started to oxidize and turn brown as long as it is cooked within 3-5 days. When it does go bad, the off smell and texture will be your clue to toss it.

Grass Fed and Finished

Claims that describe how the animals are fed include “Grass Fed,” “Grain Finished,” “Grain Finished,” and “Pasture Raised.”  “Grass Fed” means the meat is fed an exclusive diet of grass and other forage in pre-grain states, and “Pasture Raised” means they are free to roam and have access to unconfined pasture throughout its’ entire life. To achieve good marbling and fat content in beef, farmers’ may choose to “Grain Finish” their meat in feedlots on a grain-formulated diet until time for processing. In order to use the “Grass Finished” label, producers must provide the percent of grass to grain used to produce the meat.

USDA Organic and Non-GMO

USDA Organic product addresses how the meat is raised, fed, and processed and is verified by a third party agency against a published set of protocols as well as audited. In order to meet USDA organic standards, antibiotics, growth hormones, synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. The non-GMO claim typically includes traceability, documentation, segregation, and purchasing of non-GMO feed to be verified by a third-party claim.

No matter which meat and poultry products you purchase, they are safe and can be part of a nutritious diet in appropriate portions. Meat and poultry are good sources of protein, iron, B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium. Be sure to support our farmers and your health when reading label claims the next time you shop!

N.C. Cooperative Extension of Richmond County’s goal is to provide the residents of the community with research-based knowledge. For more information on food safety, health, wellness, and nutrition please contact the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Janice Roberts, MS at 910-997-8255.