Monday, May 12, 2008

Understanding Food Labels - A Tricky Business

Like many others, my family is often convinced to buy one product over another because of the way the product is labeled, and the descriptive adjectives that are used. Take chicken for example. Buying chicken these days is not like it used to be. With labels like “100 percent natural,” “organic,” “grain-fed,” and “free range,” many consumers don’t really know what they’re buying.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—“100 percent natural” means the poultry doesn’t contain artificial ingredients like preservatives. But there are no guarantees, as this "natural" tag is uncontrolled and unrestricted. One expert from Baylor says this about the claim:

“Remember—no inspections are done. So we don’t know if those claims are really true,” says Shannon Wallace, R.D., registered dietitian with Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.

Chicken labeled as “organic” must meet much stricter standards. Inspections are actually conducted and organic chicken cannot contain artificial ingredients, hormones or antibiotics. The USDA does not make any claims that organically produced food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food, however.

Another popular chicken label is “grain fed.” This is supposed to mean the chicken was not fed animal by-products, but just like “100 percent natural," there is no outside monitoring for this claim. This one can be used just about any time, in any way.

And probably the most confusing label of them all—“free range.” Chickens labeled as “free range” are supposed to be leaner, but again, experts warn the claim can be deceiving. Free range does not always mean that the animal has been in an open area its whole life. It may only mean they were caged and let out into that open area one time during their life.

As you can see, at least with chicken, food labeling can be extremely deceptive.


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