Natural? Organic? Free-Range? Here's What Meat and Chicken Labels Really Mean

Confused by all the terms and claims on packages of meat and chicken? Here's a quick explainer so you can make the right choices for your family.
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The supermarket meat department can be a very confusing place, thanks to all the terms and claims on labels. What's worse, prices can vary a lot depending on which claims are on those packages. If you're not certain what all the terminology means—and worry you're not making the smartest choices because of it—you are definitely not alone. "There are many terms that relate to meat that consumers don't understand," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label To Table. She decodes the most common labels on meat so you can be a smarter shopper:

  • Grass-Fed Beef: Grass-fed cattle have access to pasture for grazing, but that doesn't mean they only ate grass. They may also have been grain-fed for a portion of their lives, like most cattle are. If you want beef from cattle that have only eaten grass, you'll want to look for the terms "Grass Finished" or "100% Grass-Fed".
  • No Hormones: You may see the term "no hormones administered" on beef if no hormones were used in the raising in the cattle. But a "no hormones" claim on pork or poultry is meaningless, since hormones aren't legally allowed to be given to hogs or poultry anyway. In those cases, when the claim is used, you'll also spot some fine print saying "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."
  • No Antibiotics: This means the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics.
  • Free Range: The animals had the option of going outdoors, but that doesn't mean they actually did—or that the outdoor area was more than a concrete lot.
  • Fresh: This simply means that the product never had an internal temperature lower than 26 degrees F.
  • Lean: The meat contains less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.
  • Natural: This claim doesn't mean as much as many people think. The bare requirements to use this term are that no artificial ingredients or colors were added and that the meat or poultry underwent minimal processing.
  • Organic: The "Certified Organic" seal means the meat or poultry comes from animals that were fed 100 percent organic diet and never given hormones or antibiotics. They were also given access to the outdoors.
  • USDA Prime, Choice, and Select: This grading system is about the quality of and amount of fat and marbling on the meat. USDA Prime has the most fat and marbling (and is usually the most tender and juicy), USDA Choice has less, and USDA Select has the least amount. (Stores may use the word "prime" and "select" in advertising, but unless those terms have "USDA" in front of them, they don't mean much.)

But be sure to look beyond these claims too. Taub-Dix advises always checking for the expiration date and making sure the package is well sealed and not leaking, and that there's no odor to the meat or poultry.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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