What Do Food Label Claims Really Mean?

December 14, 2015

What Do Food Label Claims Really Mean?

So, I was thinking last night about marketing and farming. Marketing is such a powerful vehicle because in the end it influences what I think to be truth and how I spend my money.

Antibiotic free

Hormone free



...and on and on and on.

What do these claims really mean, though?

I signed up to share a blog post at the end of this year's City Mom program because I wanted to do a re-cap of what I learned while participating in it.

I have previously focused on agricultural technology during my tours, mainly because of my misconception of what a farmer is (that of being some guy in overalls using the Farmer's Almanac to figure out when to plant his crop and then doing so in such a way that lacked education and resources to do so as a steward of the land) totally got shot out of the water, quickly, after my participation in the Spring Plating Tour.

The thing, though, is why isn't the farmer's voice as loud as his opponents? There are documentaries about how farmers and agricultural business are destroying the American food supply, monopolizing it, trying to control it, don't care about us as consumers, that it's all about making lots and lots of money and at any means. So, lets spray this, mutate that and push the limits here.

The one thing that has come up over and over and OVER again in these tours is the "Open Door" policy that all of the farmers have. "Have a question? Here's my contact information and the contact information of every other farmer and/or agricultural representative here today."

Here are some "touchy" topics that I feel should be explained in more detail:

So, what DOES "Antibiotic Free" mean?

NO ANTIBIOTICS: The term "no antibiotics added" may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.
(US Department of Agricultural website)

The USDA requires all beef, pork, poultry or milk destined for grocery stores or restaurants be tested and inspected by the Food Safety Inspection Service to ensure there are no antibiotic residues. Farmers also are required to follow strict withdrawal periods for animals given antibiotics.

What does this really mean? The milk and meat that you are consuming is antibiotic free regardless of what it says on the label.

So, what DOES "Hormone Free" mean?

NO HORMONES (pork & poultry): Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim "no hormones added" cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

NO HORMONES (beef): The term "no hormones administered" may be approved for use on the label of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals.
(US Department of Agricultural website)

There is no science-based research linking food to early development. Higher body weight has been suggested as a contributing factor. You might not realize it, but all living things contain hormones. Watch this video as Illinois farmers talk about hormones in dairy and meat compared to other food items.

I learned on the Beef & Harvest tour that there are 8.5 nanograms of estrogen in a 1 lb. steak that came from cattle that has not been treated with hormones. There are 11 nanograms of estrogen in a 1 lb. steak that came from cattle that has been treated with hormones.

Do you eat a one pound steak in one sitting? I know that I don't.

Also, there are 25 nanograms of estrogen in a potato.

Oh, and by the way, there are 1 billion nanograms in one gram. I didn't know that which is why I wanted to pass that information along.

"People have lots of estrogen, too. An adult male will produce 136,000 nanograms of estrogen every day. A non-pregnant adult female will produce around 513,000 nanograms of estrogen a day. And a pregnant woman will produce 19,600,000 nanograms of estrogen a day."

Here is a really cool visual regarding hormones in meat.

Oh, and check out the packaging on your next chicken purchase. Does it say "Hormone Free"? It doesn't need to. All pork and poultry is hormone free. Again, marketing to influence what you think and how you spend your money.

So, what DOES "Organic" mean?

ORGANIC: For information about the National Organic Program and use of the term "organic" on labels, refer to these factsheets from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service:

Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts

Labeling and Marketing Information

Here are the fact sheets from the US Department of Agricultural Marketing Service Division regarding "Organic"
Standards-Related Fact Sheets.

Can GMOs be Used in Organic Products?
Organic Livestock Requirements
Organic Production + Handling Standards
Labeling Organic Products
Allowed + Prohibited Substances in Organic Production + Handling
Introduction to Organic Practices

While organic and non-organic foods are produced using different farming methods, nutritionally they aren't different.

Personally, I don't buy organic anything unless it's the least expensive option. And, mostly, it's not. I have chosen not to make food purchases in this manner because I see no difference in the food.

So, what DOES "Natural" mean?

NATURAL: A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").
(US Department of Agricultural website)

Then why does my package of split chicken breasts say "natural"? Why does my carton of soy milk say "natural"? Aren't they by nature, natural?


It took me about an hour to write this blog post with all the research to link out all the above information. The best suggestion that I can give is to educate yourself. Knowledge is power. And, if you have a question about your food, ask a farmer. Here is the link to ask a question at the Illinois Farm Families website. In the end, it is a choice. Educate yourself so that you can make a more informed decision, and not one based on fear or marketing gimmicks.

Originally posted on Educational Anarchy.


Stephanie Kush

Stephanie Kush Frankfort, IL

Stephanie was one of the Illinois Farm Families 2015 City Moms. Throughout the year she visited Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms shared their thoughts by blogging about what they experienced on these farms

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