6 Misleading Food Labels

Overwhelmed by food labels and their hidden meanings? Skip the grocery aisle and head straight to the farmers’ market to get to know a local farmer.

by Jesse Frost

6 Misleading Food Labels - Image courtesy iStock/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com) #foodlabels #farmersmarket

As more and more people want to know how their food is grown, supermarkets are becoming an increasingly confusing place to shop. It seems every piece of produce, egg carton and package of meat is trying to entice the conscientious shopper into believing that it’s exactly the healthy, fresh product he or she is looking for—even if it’s neither. Here are six confusing food labels that give the customer six (more) good reasons to shop at the farmers’ market, where they can ask a real farmer all the questions these labels seek to avoid.

1. All Natural/Naturally Raised

The word “natural”—be it “100% Natural” or “All Natural”—is one of the more ubiquitous yet misleading food terms. This might be in part because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not officially defined “natural.” While the FDA won’t object to this label on a product that doesn’t contain added color or synthetic or artificial ingredients, these “natural” products can still contain corn derivatives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which could both be considered, by their very design, unnatural.

“Naturally raised,” on the other hand, is technically defined—though not very restrictively—to mean meat raised with no growth promoters, antibiotics, animal by-products or fish by-products. The definition does not state what can be fed to the animals (besides “no animal by-products”) or in what environment.

There is one notable exception to the “natural” dilemma: Certified Naturally Grown. CNG producers grow without chemicals and are reviewed by other CNG farmers, not the government or private businesses. Because CNG producers tend to be small, certified products are far more likely to appear at your local farmers’ market than your local supermarket.

What to ask a farmer:
Don’t be shy asking if a farmer sprays or uses chemicals, or if your local baker adds ingredients you’re avoiding. Market vendors will always be more upfront with you about their practices than a label will.

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2. Organically Grown

For all intents and purposes, when the label says organic, it means just that—it legally has to. To qualify as an organic producer, one must go through several years of USDA Organic Certification, using only amendments and pest-control options approved by the Organic Management Review Institute. However, a lot of organic food you see in stores comes from other states if not other countries. Notably, organic does not necessarily mean local, as 17 percent of Americans believe according to a 2014 AgEcon survey.

What to ask a farmer:
You can ask if a farmer is organic, but don’t write them off if he or she says no. Some farmers, though organic in practice, choose not to certify. Instead, ask them what pest- and soil-management practices they do use.

3. Locally Grown

“Local” likewise does not inherently mean organic, as 23 percent of Americans reported to believe in the above survey. “Locally Grown” is another vague label you’re likely to see more frequently in the coming years, which has no regulation as of October 2014. In other words, “local” can mean grown within 100 feet or 500 miles of the store.

What to ask a farmer:
It’s not strange to ask a farmer where their farm is located, though you are not likely to meet too many farmers who travel more than couple hours to get to your farmers’ market. You might also ask if they grew the produce themselves or are reselling products grown somewhere else.

4. Vine-Ripened

Just because a tomato is red and still has the vine attached doesn’t mean it’s tasty, healthy or grown locally. Even when a label says “vine-ripened” or “on the vine,” it’s still picked at an immature, green stage and often gassed with ethylene to redden, leaving it tasteless when it arrives at the store.

What to ask a farmer:
Most farmers’ market produce is picked fresh unless otherwise indicated, but asking a farmer when something was picked and at what stage of ripeness is not in any way inappropriate.

5. Free-Range

In order for eggs to be labeled “free-range,” the FDA requires that the grower provide shelter but allow the chickens to have unlimited access to food and water and continuous access to an outdoor area. Often the interpretation of the phrase “outdoor area” gets abused. Chickens need grass and sunlight to thrive, so when searching out the best, most nutritious eggs, it’s a good idea to track down a farmer who truly lets his or her hens range freely on pasture.

What to ask a farmer:
Most of the eggs you see at farmers’ markets come from small farms, but don’t hesitate to ask the farmer how his or her birds were raised and what kind of feed they received.

6. Grassfed

One of the more deceiving food labels is “grassfed.” For meat to receive this label from the USDA, the animals must gain a “majority of their nutrients” from grass, but the government does not regulate what the rest of the feed should be, nor restrict in any way the use of hormones or antibiotics. Grassfed also doesn’t necessarily mean grass-finished, which can affect both nutritional content (such as the amount of omega-3s) and flavor.

What to ask a farmer:
When buying any meat, it’s always a good idea to ask about how the animals were raised, whether they were raised outdoors, and what they were fed, if anything. Again, passionate farmers will be happy to answer these questions.

Get more farmers’ market tips from HobbyFarms.com:


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