NUTRITION: Don't be misled by meat labels
When discussing healthy eating, the two most important pieces of information I want my patients to understand is proper portion sizes and how to read a nutrition label. Food companies purposely try to make the packaging look appealing so you will buy it; this may mean trying to make the food appear as a healthier option when it isn't. This also applies to meat products. There are many claims on meat that seem to be very deceptive.
The United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) is responsible for developing policies and inspection methods to help ensure labels on meat, poultry and egg products are properly labeled.
I am frequently asked about hormones and use in our meat supply. I believe the labeling claims about hormones can be very confusing. Hormones are not allowed to be used in pork, poultry or bison. However, the claim "no hormones added" can be used on labels of these products if the claim is followed by a statement saying "federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones." What I find deceptive is "no hormones added" will be in large print on the front of the package while the required statement regarding the legal use of hormones will be in small print on the back of the package. "No hormones administered" can be used on labels for beef only if proper documentation is provided to the USDA by the producer.
Antibiotic use can also be confusing and worrisome for some consumers. All animals that may be treated with antibiotics need to follow federal guidelines defining how long the animal needs to be in a withdrawal period. All meat legally sold in the U.S., both meat produced in the U.S. and imported, is inspected by the USDA. Any meat found to have detectable antibiotics is discarded. If an animal is treated with antibiotics, it cannot contain the organic label.
"Organic" means the animals need to be raised on organic land, be fed an organic diet, and not be given antibiotics or hormones. Organic refers only to what the animal has consumed. The label does not guarantee what happens to the product during processing. This is regulated by farm visits by the federal regulating agencies.
"All natural" is related to the processing of the animal. All natural meat products cannot have any added artificial ingredients, such as coloring, flavoring or preservatives. Unlike "organic," "all natural" does not include any standards for how the animal is raised. This term is not as strictly regulated and only requires producers to include a statement regarding the meaning of the term natural on the product; often it will be a statement such as "minimal processing" or "no artificial ingredients."
"Pasture fed" and "free range" are terms that refer to how the animal was raised. "Pasture fed" means that the animal had to have access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days per year. For poultry, "free range" is defined as having continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle. This means some of these animals may spend their entire life in an open pasture while others spend their life inside and never venture out the access door.
Always be sure to read ingredients and nutrition facts labels for meat. If you want further information about production and processing methods, look to the USDA or individual producer and manufacturer. I often follow American Heart Association guidelines when working with patients. AHA's current guidelines for meat consumption are to choose non-fried and trimmed, lean meats no more than 5.5 ounces (cooked) per day; and poultry without the skin. Choose seasonings with no or lower amounts of salt and sodium such as spices, herbs and other flavorings in cooking and at the table. Select meat substitutes such as dried beans, peas, lentils or tofu.
Brenda Schwerdt, RDN, LD, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke’s hospital. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.