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From “natural” to “sustainable” to “gluten-free,” food labeling terms have become more specific, and much more prominent in the past decade or so. But what do they all mean? It’s not uncommon for consumers to see these labels – some that are simply used as buzzwords with no federal verification – and assume one thing when they actually mean another. Or perceive terms to mean foods are healthier, when that may not be the case. Take a look at frequently used food label terms below, and educate yourself before your next shopping trip to make better, more informed choices for your family.

What Is the Difference Between Pasteurized and Ultra-Pasteurized?

Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to at least 161.6 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds and then quickly cooling it down to eliminate certain bacteria. The method will keep milk fresh for two to three weeks. Ultra-Heat Treatment, whereby milk is heated to 280 degrees Fahrenheit for a minimum of two seconds, can extend shelf life up to nine months.

Why Would a Label Read “Hormone-Free”?

The USDA allows the label “no hormones administered” on meat or poultry products to designate that the animals did not receive added hormones during their lifetimes. On other meat, the manufacturer or marketer applies this term; it is not independently verified.

What is Certified Angus Beef And is it Different From Angus or Black Angus Labeling?

The American Angus Association has registered a definition of “Certified Angus Beef” with the USDA that requires the animal to have 50 percent Angus genetics or a predominantly (51 percent) black coat. There are additional meat quality requirements but none specifying how the animals are raised or what they’re fed. “Angus Beef” and “Black Angus Beef” are different, unregulated terms.

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What Does “Natural” Mean on Meat and Poultry Labels?

For meat and poultry, the label applies to how it is processed, not how it is raised. The USDA defines natural to mean that meat and poultry must be only minimally processed and cannot contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives or artificial ingredients.

What About “Natural” on Other Food Labels?

In all other instances, “natural” is a largely meaningless labeling term. The USDA defines it only in regard to meat and poultry, so what it means on cereal boxes is anyone’s guess.

What Does “Sustainable” Mean on Food Labels?

“Sustainable” implies that farms are managed to benefit natural resources and the local economy. But no government agency or official third party verifies the claim.

What is “Free Range”?

The USDA defines this to mean that birds are allowed access to the outdoors for more than half their lives. However, just because the cage door was open doesn’t mean the birds actually spent time outside. This claim is not independently verified.

What is Cage-Free?

Both “cage-free” and “free roaming” are defined by the USDA to mean that birds can roam indoors, and don’t guarantee that birds are allowed access to the outdoors. This claim is not independently verified.

What is “Omega-3 Enhanced”?

In eggs, this USDA term means that the laying hens were fed a diet enriched with natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed. The FDA requires that the quantity of omega-3s per egg also be displayed on the label.

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“Gluten-free” Seems to be on so Many More Labels Now. Why?

Gluten-free is a buzzword in the food world. Those with gluten sensitivities and gluten intolerance keep their diets free of gluten, and others say they feel better keeping gluten to a minimum. Just remember that “gluten-free” on a bag of cookies doesn’t change the fact that the product inside could be high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. Most healthy foods – chicken, eggs, vegetables – are naturally gluten-free.

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