The Label Lies
Organic. All Natural. Free Range. Trans-fat-free. Sustainable. Local.
The problem with these labels is that in many cases the definition does not match consumer expectations. To someone who hasn't taken the time to read the standard, the label often has a very different definition in practice than the word to describe it.
Unfortunately the pattern often goes like this--a group of well-intentioned people create a movement to improve how food is produced, whether for health or environmental reasons. They invent a term to separate their products from conventional food. The term becomes popular as more people become educated and decide to be choosier about what they eat. Soon, even the big guys start to notice and want to find a way to join in on this new trend. To protect the word from becoming meaningless, standards are drawn.
In an ideal world, these standards would be drawn from consumer expectations, or in the spirit of the original movement. This is not usually the case. The fact is that the FDA and USDA exist as much to protect business interests as consumers. The standards are generally broad, so that more businesses can get in on the market. There is a fear of doing anything to drastic, to protect the industry--and presumably American jobs. And in many cases, there are no standards, so the terms are freely used. A company cannot really lie about it's products, but they CAN use fuzzy definitions to it's benefit.
Just how broad, you ask? I'll give you a few examples.
Organic was a label originally coined in 1939 by Lord Northbourne, who meant it to describe a holistic, ecologically-balanced farming method. It was to contrast with what he referred to as "chemical farming" meaning the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer. It's ideal was originally meant to be a sustainable, practice with crop rotation and other similar practices. By today's definition, many of the farms that meet these ideals cannot call themselves organic. When the label was defined, it was not only kept rather broad, it also can be very expensive, and restrictive in odd ways. When you add in the fact that many organic vegetables are shipped from halfway across the world...well...you can see where it may have lost a teensy bit of it's meaning. It's now recommended that, if you have the opportunity, you should ask your local farmers about their practices directly, rather than going by just the label. What you find might surprise you. Even worse? Just because a company has the word organic in it's name doesn't mean it's organic. Lastly, when it comes to organic animals, don't assume that the label automatically makes it humane--in most cases they are raised in pretty much the same conditions as conventional cattle, just fed organic corn instead and skipping the hormone and antibiotic treatments.
In another odd twist, you would think that trans-fat-free would mean that there's no trans-fats, right? Nope. You'd be wrong. The standards allow a product with less than .5 grams to use the label--and they can round it to 0 grams in the nutrition facts! Given how low the daily recommendations are of this deadly fat (about 3 grams MAX, preferably 0) and how the typical American serving varies from the label, you can see how this might be misleading. The only way to truly tell if there are trans-fats is to read the ingredients list--if you see "Hydrogenated" oil of any kind on the list, put it back. And the words "All natural?" Did you know that high-fructose corn syrup is "all natural?" At least by the current definition. As long as it's originally derived from a natural source, the amount of processing doesn't matter.
Next are some of the animal welfare terms: Cage-free, Free-range. . Cage-free? I'll bet most people don't picture this:
Now even the word "local" is getting co-opted. Originally coined to mean food grown and processed near the consumer, it's now being used by businesses like Lays. Their recent campaigns have been sparking a lot of discussion as to what local really means. The original idea behind the local movement is to keep your money invested in the local economy, and to stop the ridiculous amount of shipping of goods that utilizes so much of our precious fuel. Now it applies to any large business in an area, who might be spending those dollars on a global scale, with little connection to the community they are selling to.
And then there's the use of the word "sustainable." I hear it applied to cotton frequently nowadays. Many people believe that because cotton is a "renewable resource," it's automatically sustainable, completely forgetting the massive amounts of water (from slow-to-replenish aquifers) and pesticides used in it's production, never mind the tons of chemicals used in processing the fibers each year that pollute the waters with dioxin...and the slave labor necessary to get those $5.99 T shirts you see in the stores. Sustainable should--at the very least!--mean that a product doesn't destroy the environment in it's production.
This list goes on and on. The only answer is to be as educated a consumer as you can be. To start: don't rely on the labels to tell you what's in your food, read the ingredients. If you can, talk to the producer and ask questions. If animal welfare is important to you, ask them about where they source their ingredients from and how the animal's are raised. If eating "naturally" is your thing and you see the word "natural flavors," call the number on the package to ask what's in it. If you can't get an answer, you might want to consider buying only from companies with nothing to hide in the future. Lastly, there are any number independent certification programs out there who focus on issues from humane-treatment of animals to ensuring proper payment of farmers. Make sure you agree with their standards before using them as a guide though! There are a number of labels that are really just an industry marketing ploy. One prime example? The "Smart Choices" program. Presumably helps you pick healthy choices, but apparently their standards are "well it's healthier than a donut." If you aren't sure about a label, try asking about it in any of the number of conscious-consumer forums out there.
Edit: The first posted version of this article mentioned the term grass-fed, since there was only one view I opted to remove it as my information was out of date and I'd rather not confuse anyone. Grass-fed is now a defined term including no grain or grain-by-products since weaning. Yay for a meaningful label!