Consumer culture is taking a drastic turn, and the “conscious shopper” is on the rise. Consumers are beginning to care more about supply chain transparency and the environmental impact of the goods they purchase. On one side, we’re seeing many companies take steps towards meeting these demands by implementing more ethical practices.
However, it’s not uncommon for companies to exploit the good-will of shoppers through misleading labels. We see this a lot in the food industry, where packages are covered in words like natural, non-GMO, and organic. Figuring out which of these labels are legitimate and which are pure marketing fluff is challenging.
To help our fellow conscious shoppers sift through the bullsh*t, we decided to expose our top 3 misleading food labels so that you can shop guilt free.
1. Cage Free & Free Range
Cage Free and Free Range labels are often seen on egg cartons, and they sound appealing! Under these terms, it’s easy to envision happy hens grazing in scenic fields. Unfortunately, neither of these phrases really equate to Cruelty Free.
First, it’s important to clarify that the USDA does not codify these terms. This means that not all Cage Free or Free Range eggs are graded by the USDA, and no regulation is required in these cases. For eggs that are packaged under a USDA Grade Shield, the farms are regulated but not obligated to be humane.
Under the USDA, to be considered Cage Free, hens must have access to food and water and are only required to roam around during their laying cycle. As a result, a majority of their lives will be spent in cages, and hens that are farmed for their meat may never be cage free.
Free Range is more restrictive, but the only significant difference is that hens must have “continuous” access to the outdoors during their laying cycles. However, there are no regulations on stocking density or the amount of time they must be let outdoors. The relaxed restrictions mean that while farms may have openings to the outside, oftentimes the housing is too overcrowded for hens to ever be able to move through them.
Under both grades, hens are most likely crammed in dark warehouses with unhygienic conditions and no room to roam. None of these labels protect against the physical treatment of chickens, so inhumane practices such as debeaking is also not uncommon.
So, what label should you look for when shopping for poultry products? Though unintuitive, the most restrictive label is not regulated by the USDA at all. Pasture Raised eggs MUST be certified humane as well. Any eggs that are labeled Pasture Raised but not certified humane are misleading. Certified Pasture Raised eggs must give each hen 108 square-feet to roam and a covering for when weather conditions get rough. This amount of acreage allows for rotating flocks so that they always have fresh food to pick at. We love Vital Farms, who not only have all the certifications, but also an amazing Instagram page featuring their lovely girls!
2. All Natural
All Natural and 100% Natural are probably some of the most prevalent terms we see. The labels are used on everything from cereal to cosmetics to cleaning products. Sadly, the definition of All Natural is vague, and there are few explicit requirements. Currently, the FDA defines “natural” as “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” What’s “expected” to be in food is clearly very subjective. As a result, foods that are heavily processed or contain artificial ingredients may be legally labeled natural.
Understandably, shoppers have very different perceptions of what “natural” means. According to National Geographic, a 2014 report revealed that about two-thirds of Americans thought “natural” meant that the item was free of artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified ingredients. A 2015 Consumer Reports survey on natural food labels revealed similar sentiments about natural meat and poultry. Over half of respondents thought “natural” referred to meat that was free of GMOs, antibiotics, artificial colors and flavors, and had no artificial colors/flavors in the feed.
These statistics are pretty daunting; it’s hard to think that people who care about eating natural, healthy foods are being duped all the time. But there are indicators that things might change. In 2014, the FDA formally requested the public to comment on revising the definition of natural foods. Comments closed in May 2016 with 7,600 responses! Hopefully, this was the first step in making a more clear and regulated labeling of natural foods.
3. Sustainable Palm Oil (or RSPO-certified Palm Oil)
Palm oil is one of those ingredients that seems to be in everything. It’s found in products such as bar soap, cosmetics, and your favorite candies and chips. There are over 200 different names it could be listed as, including the very common Vegetable Oil, which makes being a sustainable shopper even harder.
Before we dive into palm oil certifications, a quick background on why it’s so harmful to the environment. It’s derived from oil palm trees, which only grow in the tropics. Due to high demand, plantations are spreading throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America; Malaysia and Indonesia are the world’s largest producers of palm oil.
To make room for oil palm plantations, an insane amount of rainforests and other precious ecosystems have been cleared. This deforestation has destroyed habitats for some of the most endangered species — rhinos, orangutans, elephants, and more. Palm oil production is also a major cause of pollution, soil erosion, and carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas). The WWF provides a great overview of the impact of palm oil on the environment. With confidence, we think that palm oil production is one of the worst industries for the environment.
To address the environmental impacts of palm oil, The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 to allow for regulating and monitoring the environmental and social impact of palm oil plantations.
In general, the criteria set in place by RSPO is loose around deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and social labor laws. Or, more bluntly, all of these are still permitted by RSPO-certified farms. RSPO has also been criticized for its inability to enforce and regulate their own policies. And the processes set in place to revoke certifications takes years, while follow-ups to violations are notoriously forgotten.
Constant pressure from organizations and consumers has led RSPO to release RSPO-next, which claims to address some of these issues, and looks more promising. However, given that this certification just hit the market, there is no data to show whether it’s a true improvement or not. For now, the best way to shop for sustainable palm oil is to avoid it all together. Luckily there’s amazing products that are completely palm-oil free!
As demonstrated, companies use tactical language to mislead consumers into thinking they’re buying from positive sources. We hope this helps clear some of the confusion up, and encourages you to go do your own research! Please comment below if you’d like a post on our favorite sustainable foods, including palm oil-free alternatives.