You may think you have a pretty good understanding of the terms we see on labels in the grocery store -- words like sugar-free, cage-free, grass-fed, pasture-raised and so forth. You may be wrong. It can be mind-boggling. On the surface, many these terms seem self-explanatory. Take the term "cage-free." I picture happy chickens free to roam around in the outdoors. Well as it turns out, not quite. Here's a handy list to help you become better informed about nutrition promises and claims found on food packaging.
Sugar-Free: This indicates there is less than one-half gram of sugar per serving, but it does not necessarily mean the product is low calorie or health-promoting. The food could still be loaded with carbohydrates and fats. It's always best to read the ingredients listed on the label.
Supports a Healthy Metabolism: This is one of the more puzzling terms. From what I could determine, to qualify for this designation, the food has to contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. It appears that the FDA does not always follow up by investigating this claim. Bottom line here, if you really want to support a healthy metabolism, follow the Zone Diet rather than this statement on the label.
Genetically Modified Foods (GM Foods) and Genetically Modified Organism (GMO): GM stands for genetically modified. A genetically modified organism is a new animal or plant formerly unknown to nature that has been created by having specific changes made to its DNA by methods of genetic engineering. GM foods are foods produced from GMOs. Potential health risks have been associated with GMOs as well as potential risks to the entire ecosystem, everything from possible extinction of the original organism to unpredictable effects on the environment.
No Antibiotics: Basically these animals have not been given antibiotics. Some public-health officials warn that eating animals that have had antibiotics administered to them can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans, known as superbugs. To be safe, always thoroughly cook meat and poultry to recommended temperatures.
Hormone-Free: The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in all pork and poultry products. Since the general public may not be informed of this, adding these words to a label can be viewed as an attempt to fool the shopper into thinking it's a superior product. The USDA and the FDA do allow the use of hormones in beef. Studies on the impact of these hormones on humans who consume the meat are inconclusive. Personally, I try to avoid dairy products and beef with added hormones. Look for “no hormones administered” on the label.
Grass-fed and Grass-finished or 100% Grass-fed: This informs us the animal's feed was composed entirely of grass, legumes and green vegetation up until the animal was slaughtered. It does not address whether pesticides were in the feed, or if antibiotics or hormones were administered to the animal. For total peace of mind you'd want to chose a 100% organic grass-fed meat and ask if it is also grass-finished. The best way to find out is to ask the butcher or the farmer. The fat in grass-fed beef is healthier than the fat found in conventionally raised animals fed a diet of grain. Grass-fed is the better choice for the Zone Diet.
Grass-fed and Grain-finished: These animals are fed grass until the last few months of life and are then switched to a diet of grain, usually soy and corn. If the meat is not certified to be 100% organic, then the feed was most likely GMO.
Vegetarian-Fed: This implies a diet of grasses and greens, but it's usually GMO corn and soy.
Cage-Free: This one conjures up images of green pastures, but it only means the animals are not in cages. They can be in small crowded facilities with little room to move around. There is access to unlimited feed and fresh water.
Free-Range: Again, we think of animals grazing outdoors in the field. Not so. This term is used for animals raised in sheltered facilities. The doors are often so small they go unnoticed, and the animals never go outside in their lifetime. If the animals are in an outdoor pasture, it is permitted that the area be fenced in and covered in netting. These animals have access to unlimited food and water.
Pasture-Raised: While the USDA hasn't defined this term yet, many farmers are using it to distinguish themselves from those who use free-range practices. Pasture-raised animals spend much of their time freely roaming around outdoors with unlimited access to food, fresh water and indoor shelter during bad weather. Many times there are not given antibiotics or hormones, but you should ask to be sure. This term does not imply that the feed is organic or GMO-free.
If in doubt, your best bet is to ask. Whether you're shopping at your neighborhood market, or a superstore box chain, or you're lucky enough to have an organic grass-fed farm nearby, most places welcome questions and have access to the information you're looking for.
Until next time, Happy Zoning!