The Truth about Cage-free, Free-range, No Antibiotics, Humanely Raised

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Nutrition claims are confusing. How do you know if you should pay more for a carton of eggs or package of meat based on a claim on the package? Is it legit, or made up by a marketing team to make their food stand out from competitive products on grocery store shelves? This post will help you sort through the confusion on common food claims including cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free and differences in egg quality scores so you can choose which option is best for you.


free-range, cage-free eggs

Eggs: Cage-Free, Free-Range & AA, A and B Quality

Cage-free (eggs) – “cage-free” refers to the environment the hens (hens lay eggs) live in. Cage-free hens are housed in an environment allowing unlimited access to food, water and freedom to roam. There is no known nutrition difference in eggs produced by hens that are cage-free versus those that are not cage-free1.

AA quality eggs – the shells must be “clean, unbroken and practically normal.” Also, the white must be clear and reasonably firm, with a clear distinction between white and yolk. The yolk must be free from apparent defects. The air cell—the part of the egg that separates the inner shell membrane from the outer shell membrane—for AA quality eggs must not exceed 1/8 inch2.

A quality eggs – the only difference between AA and A quality eggs is the air cell. The air cell for A quality eggs must not exceed 3/16 of an inch2.

B quality eggs – the shells must be unbroken, but may be abnormal or have slightly stained areas. Shells with prominent stains or dirt are not permitted. The egg white can be weak and watery, while the yoke may be dark and large and flattened. Small blood or meat spots may be present2.

Meat and Dairy Claims

Pasture-raised, free-range, free-roaming – the animals have continuous, unrestricted access to pasture (land covered with grass and other plants) throughout their lives. Cattle and sheep must not be confined to a feedlot. Pigs must have continuous access to pasture for at least 80% of their life. You might see “free-range – never confined to feedlot,” on your meat3.

Antibiotic-free or No Antibiotics – all meat, milk and other dairy products are free from antibiotics. Therefore, a package of meat that says “antibiotic-free” is no different from the one next to it that does not carry this claim. When an animal is on antibiotics, their milk is not sold, and they cannot be slaughtered for meat. Instead, the farmer must wait until all traces of medication have cleared the animal’s body before the cow can be milked or the animal can be sent for slaughter. For more on this topic as related to milk, click here.

Humanely raised – this term makes me think of a farmer who knows each animal by name; pets and cares for them daily while attending to their needs. However, this isn’t the case. “Humanely raised” is a term made up by food companies. There is no formal definition and therefore, it is up to the food company to decide what they consider humanely raised. Ignore it. 

Naturally raised – there is no official definition for naturally raised. Therefore, this claim could mean anything. Ignore it.

Grass-fed – there is no universally accepted, standardized definition for the term grass-fed. All cows, sheep and goats eat grass for most of their lives. However, some of these animals are grain-finished—they spend several months on a grain-based diet until they reach their ideal weight. At this time, their diet consists of grains, grass, vitamin and mineral mixes, citrus pulp and other feed as determined by an animal nutritionist based on their dietary needs. Other animals are grass-finished, they consume grass their entire life, and may be given vitamin and mineral mixes as needed. There are no nutrition differences between grain-finished and grass-finished meat.

Food is a very competitive business. Consumers may choose a product based on a variety of factors including great packaging, superior taste and good nutrition value. Food claims may sway your decision; however, be sure you’re getting what you are paying for. Look for claims that are backed by a standardized definition, versus those with no definition.

This post was sponsored by USFRA, all views are my own.

References

  1. Questions and Answers About Shell Eggs. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
  1. United States Standards, Grades and Weight Classes for Shell Eggs AMS 56. USDA.
  1. Federal Register. Vol. 67, No. 250. United States Standards for Livestock and Meat Marketing Claims. 67 FR 79552. Federal Department of Agriculture.

3 Major Myths About Organic & Conventional Food

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organic blueberries, raspberries and blackberries

 

There is very little that distinguishes organic food from conventional food. In an attempt to follow the pervasive “good food vs. bad food” storyline, many people have grossly exaggerated the differences between organic and conventional foods leaving readers with few facts grounded in scientific evidence. Don’t let the top three misperceptions about organic and conventional food influence your food choices.

This post covers:

  • Pesticide residues on food and human safety
  • Organic foods, conventional foods and the environment
  • Nutrition differences between organic and conventional foods

This post does not cover worker safety or in-depth environmental issues.

#1 Myth: Organic Foods are Grown Without Pesticides

Both organic and conventional crops are sprayed with pesticides, compounds that control a variety of pests (1, 2). In fact there is a long list of substances, including pesticides, allowed for use on organic farms. The differentiating factor between organic and conventional farming is the source of pesticides. Organic farmers primarily use naturally occurring pesticides in addition to a small number of man-made pesticides while conventional farmers primarily use man-made pesticides.

In some instances there is a man-made form of a compound identical to the one found in nature. For instance, methyl bromide, a fumigant gas used to kill fungi, nematodes and weeds, is found in nature and also made in a lab. Both conventional and organic farmers can use methyl bromide on strawberry plants. Bacillus thuringienis, the most commonly used organic pesticide, is both naturally occurring and man-made; incorporated into some genetically engineered foods. One is natural, one is man-made yet there is no detectable difference between the two (3).

#2 Myth: Organic Foods are Safer for Human Consumption and Better for the Environment

Compounds found in nature are not automatically safe and non-toxic, or safer than man-made compounds (4, 5). Both naturally occurring compounds and man-made chemicals are completely harmless, extremely toxic at a certain dose, or fall somewhere in between these two extremes. You’ve probably heard the saying “the dose makes the poison.” Many compounds we consume every day, from vitamin A to water, can be lethal if consumed in extremely high doses. The same is true for pesticides. Dose and length of exposure determine toxicity. Our government has several safeguards in place for the use of pesticides. First, the EPA evaluates all pesticides. Prior to use in the United States pesticides must be free from unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. Regardless of the type of pesticide used, whether organic or man-made, the Environmental Protection Agency limits the amount of pesticide residues allowed in food and water. The USDA Pesticide Data Program routinely monitors pesticide residues in foods and has found pesticide residues, whether organic or conventional, “pose no safety concern” (8, 9).

Organic pesticides are also not necessarily better for the environment, though they are considered safe in the amounts used (just like man-made pesticides). As an example, rotenone, a naturally occurring compound used in fisheries and can be fatal if inhaled (staff spraying this pesticide must be protected from risk of inhalation) and kills fish within an hour of spraying. Waters treated with rotenone are closed for public swimming for several months after treatment allowing dead fish time to decompose. When used according to instructions, rotenone poses “no overall risk to human health” or the environment (6). In addition, a study in soybeans found organic pesticides did not control aphids (plant lice) as effectively as man-made pesticides and they were more detrimental to the environment (partly due to the amount that needed to be used) (7).

There are environmental effects, both good and bad, from conventional and organic farming. Organic farming has advanced nonchemical methods of pest control and in some instances improved soil quality while decreasing soil erosion. However, organic farming also produces a lower yield, which means more environmental resources are used to produce the same total amount of food.

Can’t we farm without any pesticides?

Sure. Some conventional and organic farms do not use pesticides. A conventional farm may choose not to get organic certification, even if they don’t use any pesticides, because of the cost of certification. Keep in mind pesticides help get rid of pests and, can therefore help make food safer by the decreasing the likelihood of pathogens such as E. coli through use of anti-microbial compounds (10, 11).

What about the “Dirty Dozen”, Should I Steer Clear of the Foods that have the Most Pesticide Residues?

Some groups rank foods based on total pesticide residues – foods that are the “most contaminated.” Though some foods may have more pesticide residues on them than others, a study from the University of California Davis found all 12 commodities identified in the Dirty Dozen contained pesticide residues well below the established safe level (called the chronic reference doses or RfDs for short). In fact, only one pesticide residue, found on bell peppers, exceeded 1% of the RfD, coming in at 2%. So the largest total “dose” of a pesticide residue found was still 50 times lower than the established safe dose. Three quarters of the pesticides detected were at levels 1,000 times below the RfD. Therefore, the 12 foods listed on the Dirty Dozen “most contaminated” foods pose “negligible risks” for consumers. Choosing organic over conventional to avoid the fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen will not completely negate your exposure to pesticides (because some organic produce has pesticide residues as well) or lower your risk from exposure to pesticides because your risk is negligible to begin with (12). Given the low amount of pesticide residues found on conventional and organic produce, there’s little appreciable difference in total pesticide exposure, whether you eat conventional or organic.

Though some studies, as well as pesticide monitoring programs have found conventional produce contains significantly more total pesticide residues then organic produce, significantly more than a miniscule amount is still a miniscule amount. Here’s an analogy: if I give you one penny and give your friend 2 pennies, your friend has 100% more money than you do – that’s a statistically significant difference. However, the financial impact of two pennies vs. one penny is meaningless.

If you want to add up your total exposure, check out the Alliance for Food and Farming developed a pesticide calculator and research behind the calculator:

http://safefruitsandveggies.com/pesticide-calculator

#3 Myth: Organic Food is More Nutritious

Several studies have examined nutrient differences between organic and conventionally produced foods. Most of this research shows no appreciable difference in vitamin or mineral content or health effects. What about plant compounds including antioxidants? In some cases organic farming may improve antioxidant content while in others man-made pesticides actually increase concentrations of certain beneficial plant-based compounds (13, 14).

In a world where we have many food choices and an overabundance of incorrect nutrition information, it’s easy to grasp onto a concept that isn’t evidence-based. Don’t get caught up in the hype and instead look for the scientific details. When it comes to organic and conventional foods, you’re not stuck choosing sides but instead can enjoy both – there is no appreciable difference in pesticide residues or nutrition content between the two.

Disclosure: I am an advisor for USFRA. All opinions expressed are my own after taking my typical nosedive into the scientific literature and government regulations on this subject.

References

1 Types of pesticide ingredients. US Environmental Protection Agency.
https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/types-pesticide-ingredients

2 Food and Pesticides. US Environmental Protection Agency
https://www.epa.gov/safepestcontrol/food-and-pesticides

3 Koch MS, Ward JM, Levine SL, Baum JA, Vicini JL, Hammond BG. The food and environmental safety of Bt crops. Front Plant Sci 2015; 6: 283.

4 Pesticides – What’s my risk? National Pesticide Information Center.

5 Contaminants Found in Groundwater. The USGS Water Science School. http://water.usgs.gov/edu/groundwater-contaminants.html

6 Lake and stream rehabilitation: rotenone use and health risks. Washington department of fish and wildlife. http://wdfw.wa.gov/licensing/sepa/2016/16041_2002_fseis.pdf

7 Bahlai CA, Xue Y, McCreary CM, Schaafsma AW, Hallett RH. Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. PLoS One 2010; 5(6): e11250.

8 What Consumers Should Know. 2014 Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary. United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/PDP%202014%20Annual%20Summary%20Consumers.pdf

9 Pesticide Program Residue Monitoring. US. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Pesticides/ucm2006797.htm

10 Mukheriee A, Speh D, Dyck E, Diez-Gonzalez F. Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. J Food Prot 2004;67(5):894-900.

11 Johannessen GS, Bengtsson GB, Heier BT, Bredholt S, Wasteson Y, Rørvik LM. Potential uptake of Escherichia coli O157:H7 from organic manure into crisphead lettuce. Appl Environ Microbiol 2005;71(5):2221-5.

12 Winter CK, Katz JM. Dietary Exposure to Pesticide Residues from Commodities Alleged to Contain the Highest Contamination Levels. J Toxicol 2011; 589674.

13 Dangour AD, Lock K, Hayter A, Aikenhead A, Allen E, Uauy R. Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 92(1):203-210.

14 Rosen J. A Review of the Nutrition Claims Made by Proponents of Organic Food, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 2010;9(3): 270-277.

Organic Does Not Mean Pesticide Free

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Are you worried about pesticides in your food? This infographic compares organic and conventional foods. Below you will find more information on this topic.

Organic does not mean pesticide free
Organic does not mean pesticide free

Nutrition Differences?

Most research shows there are no major nutrition differences between organic and conventional food (1). So you can feel good knowing you are getting the same amount of vitamins, minerals and fiber in comparable products.

Organic dairy products contain significantly higher protein, ALA, total omega-3 fatty acids than conventional dairy (2). Even though these differences are statistically significant, they don’t make much of an impact on your diet. Both aren’t great sources of ALA compared to walnuts, flaxseeds, chia and hemp.

Labeling Terms:

There are different labeling terms that will tell you more about the ingredients in the food, drink or supplement you are buying (by percent).

500px-USDA_organic_seal.svg

100% organic

– All ingredients must be certified organic
– Any processing aids must be organic
– The label must state the name of the person who certified it
– Must be made without GMOs, sewage sludge, irradiation, synthetic (man-made) fertilizers

95% Organic
– Must contain at least 95% organic ingredients
– Label must state the name of the person who certified it
– All non-organic ingredients are on the National List
– Must be made without GMOs, sewage sludge, irradiation, synthetic (man-made) fertilizers

Organic
– Must contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients (not including salt or water)
– Must be made without GMOs, sewage sludge, irradiation, synthetic (man-made) fertilizers
– All other ingredients are on the National List
– Label must state the name of the person who certified it

Are you a researcher or farmer? USDA spent $113 million to support research and farming of fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and nursery crops.

References:
1 Am J Clin Nutr 2009;90(3):680-5.
2 J Sci Food Agric 2012;92(14):2774-81.

Expo East Food Trend Spotter: Natural Jerky

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Jerky was hot this past weekend at Natural Products Expo East (the leading trade show on the East Coast in the natural, organic and healthy products industry). And I was thrilled to see so many varieties since my clients are often looking for shelf stable, portable, higher protein, healthy, TSA-approved (you can travel with it) snacks. If you are looking for a healthier version of jerky, check out these finds from the Expo:

KRAVE is a small-batch producer of all-natural, gluten free, artisanal jerky marinated and baked to lock in moisture. KRAVE’s well-seasoned meat is braised first, utilizing the “low & slow” method to result in its signature moist and tender texture. KRAVE’s wide selection of innovative flavors includes basil citrus and lemon garlic (turkey); chili lime, chipotle, garlic chili pepper and pineapple orange (beef); grilled sweet teriyaki and black cherry barbecue (pork). Check out their Store Locator to find out which grocery stores near you carry KRAVE.

Lemon Garlic Krave Turkey Jerky
Lemon Garlic Krave Turkey Jerky

The New Primal greeted me at their fantastic booth like they did with every customer – showing their appreciation that you stopped by to check out their jerky (in the new products section at Expo East). Their jerky comes from grass-fed beef, marinated and smoked to perfection. The founder, Jason, started in his own backyard, fine-tuning his jerky until it was ready for store sheaves. Because The New Primal specializes in artisanal jerky that contains no nitrates, preservatives or MSG and their original beef has just 1 gram of sugar per serving. It comes in Jerky and Spicy and perhaps best of all you can find it in a store near you. 

Original-Beef-Front-1000x1000
The New Primal Grass-Fed Beef Jerky
Original-Beef-Back-1000x1000
The New Primal Grass-Fed Beef Jerky Nutrition

Golden Valley Natural wants you to taste the Flavor of the West with their natural, gluten free, high quality beef, buffalo and turkey jerky. They come in Teriyaki, Bar-B-Que, Black Pepper, Sweet N’ Spicy and Original. Purchase online only right now.

Golden Natural Valley Buffalo Jerky
Golden Natural Valley Buffalo Jerky

Country Archer starts with extra-lean beef and adds fresh, high quality ingredients like chili peppers, pineapple juice, ginger and tamarind. No artificial ingredients or preservatives. They carry Hot, Sweet & Spicy, Peppered, Beef Teriyaki and Turkey Teriyaki. This brand is in many stores on the west coast, some in Canada and a sprinkling in the northeast (PA on up). For retailers, click here.

Country Archer Beef Jerky - Hot
Country Archer Beef Jerky – Hot

Fusion Jerky is gluten free, preservative free, contains no artificial ingredients, is and is all natural. Order these flavors online: Basil Citrus Beef, Chipotle Lime Beef, Basil Citrus Chicken, Lemon Pepper Chicken, Garlic Jalapeño Pork, Island Teriyaki Pork, Chili Basil Turkey, Rosemary Citrus Turkey. The nutrition information is listed for each flavor if you go under “shop” at the top, scroll down and click on the flavor under “Online Store” (click on the arrows at the top on the left to increase the size of the nutrition label to make it bigger).

Fusion Jerky

Triple-R-Farms features grass-fed Highland beef jerky (grass-fed means less saturated fat). Triple-R-Farms flavors include Chesapeake Bay with Coffee Beef Jerky, Chesapeake Bay Beef Jerky, Red Hot Pepper with Coffee Beef Jerky, Red Hot Pepper Beef Jerky, Beef Jerky with Coffee. They need both the nutrition information and a store locator (or some information regarding where you can find it), on their website. Props for the Chesapeake flavor!

Are You Choosing a Food for it’s Health “Halo”?

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Do the terms “organic” or “natural” make you view a food or beverage a little differently? Are you more likely to pick up a package with muted green and brown tones and the words “all natural” on front? For the past few years a few studies have shed light on the possibility that people attribute better nutrition and better health to foods with a health halo.  And, recent research proves this theory is a reality when it comes to organic products.

Sunday at the 2011 Experimental Biology meeting in our nation’s capital, Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University, presented her research on this health halo effect – do people mistakenly view foods as more healthy if those foods are organic? In a double-blind, controlled study, Lee asked participants about their thoughts on conventionally and organically labeled cookies and potato chips. Each participant rated the food on 10 different attributes using a 1 to 9 scale.

Though both the conventional and organic foods were actually the exact same food product, the foods labeled organic were perceived as more tasty, lower in calories and fat and higher in fiber and finally, participants were more willing to pay a higher price tag for these foods.

What does this mean for you the consumer? Don’t be fooled by the term organic or any other term such as “natural” or “minimally processed.” Likewise, don’t be fooled by the muted natural looking colors on packages like the muted greens and browns that make you think of nature. Take a food for what it is by looking at the label and considering how it fits into your overall diet.

As Lee stated in her study abstract, the term “organic” may generate a more positive impression of certain foods that are not necessarily healthy or nutritious.