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The Language Game

You probably have read the packaging on hundreds of different products, but do you really know what all the phrases mean? Too often, terms don’t really match up with your expectations.

Article
Tiffany Duncan
Photos
Courtesy
Posted
February 28, 2019

One of the most raging debates regarding the food industry is about the labels on meat and dairy products — what exactly do they mean, and if there really is a hierarchy of some products being better than others.

Like anything else, the answer is multi-faceted, but there are some important clarifications to understand when looking at labels that are intentionally created to be misleading (spoiler alert: no poultry, no matter what, contains added hormones, and “grass-fed” doesn’t mean what you think it means.) Buckle up; we’re about to burst some bubbles.

Eggs
Cage-Free: Naturally, a term like “cage free” sounds like it would be humane. But all this means is that, while the chickens are not actually cramped into what are known as “battery” cages (because they are long and thin like a battery), the cage-free alternative isn’t much better, if at all. The USDA defines cage-free as hens that are “housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.”

This definition, however, can be very, very loosely translated by farmers, oftentimes resulting in chickens being so cramped together in unlit, poorly ventilated barns that some are suffocated or trampled. It is not uncommon for chickens in these kinds of environments to have their beaks painfully cut off so they do not peck each other to death from stress.

Free-Range: Free-range has to be better than cage-free, right? Very often, the answer is no. The only difference between the two is that free-range hens must have access to the outdoors, but again this is largely unregulated. There is no specification to how large the outdoor area needs to be, meaning that many of the hens still will not fit outside even if they technically “have access” to it. There is also no stipulation on how long the hens get to spend outside, meaning it may only be at certain times of the day.

Pasture-Raised: This is the label you are looking for if you are wanting to purchase the most ethically conscious, tastiest, and nutrient-rich eggs. All of the idyllic scenes of hens happily clucking around a postcard-looking farm are only true when you see a label that says “pasture-raised.” These hens spend their days roaming in the sunshine, eating a mixture of insects, seeds, and grasses in addition to the feed they are fed. This diversified diet, combined with the nutrients the hens absorb from the sun in a stress-free environment, creates an egg yolk that is much darker in color, almost orange. Pasture-raised eggs contain less cholesterol and less saturated fat, and more vitamin A, E, and beta-carotene than regular, commercial eggs. They also contain twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Simply put, happy chickens make happy eggs.

Beef
Grass-Fed Beef: This is the trendy beef to buy lately, as the name seems to imply that instead of being fed genetically modified corn or soy, the cows eat only grass. But again, it’s a language game meant to trip up unwitting consumers. All grass-fed beef means is that the cows ate grass “at some point” in their life span, which for most cows means the grass they ate in the first six or eight months of their lives while also nursing. But after that, many of them are still shipped off to CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) or feedlots and finished on processed grain, soy, and corn.

Grass-Finished Beef: “Finished” is the magic word on a beef label. This means that the cows have had access to roam and munch freely on only grass (no grain) for the course of their whole lives. And yes, it is better for you. It is much leaner, as the cows are able to build muscle roaming around and have not ingested man-made feed to purposefully fatten them up. It’s also much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a beneficial fat that studies have suggested improves immunity and has anti-inflammatory properties. Plus, as they say, you are what you eat, which is scary to think about when considering the horrendous conditions and diets that commercial cattle are forced to endure.

Also be aware that when purchasing grass-finished beef, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s organic as well. If you are still worried about pesticides on grasses, you will need to look for a grass-finished label that also says “organic,” which can be difficult to find in grocery stores, as it is costly to raise cattle in this way.

Added Hormones: Because they were living things, all meat contains hormones. But it’s the added growth hormones that create the big conversation when it comes to beef. It takes much, much longer for a cow to reach a sellable weight eating only grass, and there is such a demand for cheap beef that when commercial cattle enter a CAFO they may receive a mixture of hormones and steroids to promote quick growth and development — especially natural and synthetic versions of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. There are no definitive studies that prove whether or not these added hormones directly create negative consequences within the human body, but if it is something that concerns you, it is well worth doing your own research.

Antibiotic-Free: The argument for purchasing antibiotic-free beef is a compelling one for a couple different reasons. You might ask why cows would need to be pumped full of antibiotics in the first place, and the ugly truth is it’s because of the appalling conditions they endure in CAFOs or feedlots. Many of the cows are forced to stand knee deep in excrement since they are packed so tightly together, which can create sickness and disease due to lack of sanitation. Also, because cows are biologically designed to eat grass only, they are unable to properly digest and absorb the processed grain, corn, and soy they are fed. This can cause them to get sick and develop diseases and conditions like acidosis, liver abscesses, or rumenitis — which is also called “feedlot polio.”

Approximately 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in the meat industry. Ingesting so many antibiotics these cows otherwise wouldn’t need worries some scientists and food experts that, by ingesting this meat, we are raising our tolerance to antibiotics and paving the way for a “superbug” to one day potentially decimate the population. That may sound like something out of Black Mirror, but nevertheless the concern is real.

Poultry
No Hormones Added:  This common label on chicken is perhaps the best example of a marketing ploy preying upon people’s ignorance around the food we eat. The use of hormones in poultry is actually forbidden by the FDA, and therefore all chicken, no matter what, contains no added hormones. A quick Google search will prove it. This is because advancements in breeding and genetics, among other variables, have made it possible for chickens to reach a sellable size at a naturally quick rate. Not only that, but in order for hormones to be effective in chickens, each chicken would have to be injected up to three times per day. The sheer impossibility of catching and keeping track of the number of injections to each bird (there are over 110-120 million growing at one time in Alabama alone) renders the use of hormones in chickens null and void.

No Antibiotics Ever: This is an interesting label, too, as no chicken technically retains any antibiotics in its system at the time of slaughter. The FDA does not forbid the use of antibiotics in chickens (because like all living things, they too get sick from time to time), but many farmers still strive to raise their chickens in such a way that they do not get sick. This includes the use of probiotics and vaccines, better nutrition, and innovations in barn structure, like better temperature control and air circulation.

If a flock of chickens does get sick, however, they must be quarantined in order for any antibiotic residue to clear their system before being sold to slaughter, according to USDA regulation. Flocks that have received antibiotics at any time in their life can no longer be labeled as “no antibiotics ever,” even if they have cleared from their system.

Air-Chilled: If a chicken label says “air-chilled,” it will almost certainly be the priciest chicken available — but it will also likely yield the tastiest end product on the dinner table. After being slaughtered, a chicken carcass must come down in temperature quickly after to avoid the growth of bacteria. The fastest and most efficient way to do this is to dip the chickens in large vats of cold water, but this will also lead to the birds’ retaining some of that water, which can alter the taste of the finished product (not to mention it can also lead to a higher risk of cross-contamination). Air-chilled, however, means that the chicken was passed through a series of cooling chambers to bring the temperature down without soaking it in any sort of solution.