Decoding Meat & Dairy Product Labels

I obtained this information from the Environmental Working Group


The term refers to hens that are not raised in cages, but it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors. There is no standard definition of “cage-free,” but it generally implies that the birds are free to perform natural behaviors. Many cage-free claims are not certified, though some cage-free eggs are certified by American Humane Certified label.

Certified Humane

Products carrying this label are certified to come from animals that were never confined in cages or crates, were not subjected to de-beaking (in the case of poultry) and were slaughtered according to specific requirements designed to minimize suffering. It does not permit the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics or hormones. “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” and “Animal Welfare Approved” are the two leading humane certification systems, although the Food Alliance follows similar standards. “Certified Humane” does not mean animals had access to pasture, but “Animal Welfare Approved” does.

Farmed Fish

This refers to the rapidly growing industry that raises and feeds fish for human consumption in tanks or large wire pens anchored in coastal areas or other large bodies of water. Also called aquaculture, fish farming is expanding to offset the global decline in the wild fish catch. Fifty percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is now farmed. Ironically, feeding carnivorous farmed fish such as salmon requires harvesting millions of tons of smaller wild fish, such as anchovies and sardines, to produce fishmeal and fish oil. Catfish and other farmed fish are fed mostly soybeans and corn, while farmed tilapia eats a variety of algae, seaweeds and other aquatic plants. The use of open ponds and net pens or cages allows ocean water to flow freely through them. These enclosures pollute local waters with fish waste, excess feed and antibiotics and spread disease and parasites to sensitive wild marine species. The rapid growth of farmed shrimp ponds has led to deliberate destruction of thousands of coastal acres of mangrove forests that serve as fish nurseries, protect against storms and provide local economic livelihood.



In the United States, this term applies only to poultry and is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. It indicates simply that the animals have been “allowed access to the outside.” The USDA does not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside.



This term technically refers only to animals fed a diet of natural grass and other forage, not grain, but it often includes other healthier farm practices not associated with industrially produced meat, such as local butchering, more range time for livestock and less crowded conditions. The three leading “grass-fed” labels, certified by the Food Alliance, the American Grassfed Association or the USDA, require that animals eat a diet exclusively of forage. Some companies that market their meat as “naturally raised” or grass-fed actually feed their animals grain for significant periods. USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” It does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on rangeland. Some cattle marketed as USDA grass-fed actually spend part of their lives in confined pens or feedlots.


Hormone-free/No added hormones

This means that the animals were never given hormone treatments. To boost profits, some farmers give hormones to beef cattle and sheep to speed their growth and to dairy cows to increase milk production. The USDA does not allow hormones to be used on chicken or hogs. The European Union does not allow hormones in any meat. The extensive use of hormones (see rBHG-free below) in meat and dairy may increase the risk of cancer in humans and result in higher rates of infection in animals. Products labeled “organic” cannot come from rGBH-treated cows. There is no specific hormone-free certification, though organic and grass-fed labels do not allow hormone use.


Lean/Extra Lean

These are USDA-defined terms. To qualify as “lean,” 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of beef must have fewer than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. To be labeled “extra lean,” 100 grams of beef must have fewer than 5 grams of fat, fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.


The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Processing must not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a specific explanation such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.” All fresh meat qualifies as natural. This term does not include any requirements that animals be raised in sufficient open space or that it has no added hormones or antibiotic; it is not the same as organic. The term can mislead consumers to think that the product is healthier and more humane than it is.


No nitrites/nitrates

Processed meats such as ham, bacon and hot dogs often contain nitrates, which are added to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and to enhance color. Eating meat that has been treated with nitrates may increase the risk of cancer and other health problems. Vegetable-based nitrates (e.g., celery, salt) are a safer bet.


Food labeled organic must be third-party certified to meet USDA’s criteria. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge. Organic meat and poultry cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics and must be fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture. There are two ways to identify organic fruits and veggies: by the “100% organic” or “organic” label and by the unique Price Look-Up (PLU) code sticker. (link to Enviroblog post on this: Instead of a 4-digit number beginning with a “4,” organic produce has a 5-digit number that begins with a “9.”



Animals raised in a pasture can roam freely in their natural environment, where they are able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants that their bodies are adapted to digest. There is no specific pasture-raised certification, though certified organic meat must come from animals that have continuous access to pasture.


Processed meats

In addition to sodium, artificial coloring and flavor enhancers, processed meats often contain preservatives, such as nitrites, to reduce foodborne illness retard spoilage from microorganisms and rancidity from fat oxidation. Examples are: sausage, bacon, smoked ham, hot dogs, packaged lunchmeats, pepperoni and salami. Note: You won’t see the word “processed’ on the label! The American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund recommend limiting consumption of processed meats; research has linked them to colorectal, kidney and stomach cancer.



These products are from animals not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). rGBH is a genetically engineered hormone approved by the FDA in 1993 that when injected into cows artificially increases milk production by 10 to 15 percent. There are health concerns for both cows and humans exposed to the drug. Buying organic dairy products is another way to avoid rGBH since its use does not meet the organic criteria.


Saturated Fat

This is one of the two main types of fats that appear in foods. Unlike unsaturated fat, it has no double bonds between carbon atoms in its chemical structure, so the fatty acids are saturated with hydrogen. Fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet, but excessive saturated fat has been associated with health problems. Fats in animal-based foods are predominantly saturated. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urge people to limit intake of saturated fat.

Sodium nitrate/nitrite-free

This chemical preservative and color fixative is typically added to processed meats to lengthen shelf life, make the color more appealing and add a smoky flavor. Processed meats made without these additives are safer; they are likely “cured” with naturally occurring vegetable-based nitrates that are less harmful to human health.


Wild-caught/Wild Fish

The “wild fish” label indicates that the fish was spawned in the wild, lived in the wild and was caught in the wild. “Wild-caught fish” may have been spawned or lived some part of their lives in a fish farm before being returned to the wild and eventually caught. For sustainable fish, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of the most sustainable seafood choices, or look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label.

If you’d like to know more, navigate to:

Bottled Water is Evil. I mean, seriously.

I subscribe to Ethical Ocean and below are some factoids about bottled water and why you should stop buying it.  That said, I work for a large corporation that purchases case upon case of bottled water. Our kitchens are well stocked in bottled water, juice, and soda. I wish I could convince my employer to stop buying bottled water, but I am almost certain, I would be met with hositility and resistance. Either that or my plea would only fall on deaf ears.  In any event… read on and please spread the word. 

BTW, I am old enough to remember a time when Bottled Water didn’t exist!

From: Ethical Ocean:

I think we all have an idea that bottled water may not be the best for the planet.  All those extra plastic bottles rarely make it to the recycling depot (in fact, 75% end up in the trash), and it takes a lot of energy to produce, process and ship bottled water.  How much exactly?  7.6 MJ per 1L bottle produced: 4MJ to produce the bottle, and an average of 3.6MJ to ship it and refrigerate it.

Ok mister science pants, you might be thinking, 7.6 MJ is a pretty abstract number…What does that actually mean?  Here it is in more tangible measure:

  • 667 mL of crushed coal per 1L bottle (i.e 2/3 full) for production
  • 250 mL diesel fuel per 1L bottle (i.e. 1/4 full) for shipping and refrigeration
  • 3L of water per 1L bottle (including the litre you drink)

Quite a lot isn’t it?  Still not convinced that this is wasteful?  Consider this: keeping in mind the 7.6MJ from before, tap water by comparison uses about 0.005MJ per litre.  That means that bottled water uses about 1500x as much energy as tap water – and here’s the kicker… 50% of bottled water is actually just tap water, including Coke’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina.

Yep, they are taking tap water which you essentially get for free, packaging it up in a package which uses 1500 times the energy and will likely be thrown away in the end, and then charging you a huge premium for the same free water you get in your home.  Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?

Want to learn more?

We’ve put together a great video summarizing this information, check it out and pass it on to others:
For those interested in where these numbers came from, check out our calculations here:
And finally, our wildly popular blog post written by one of our founders, Lena Lam:

Thank you for joining the conversation!

 -The Ethical Ocean Team

Not all sugar is created vegan!

You are never too old to learn.  I have been a vegan for 11 months now and about a month or two ago, I learned that not all sugar is created vegan. Who knew, right?  According to a very hip and brilliant 23 year old co-worker of mine, who goes by the initials E.S.: sugar is whitened using charcoal from the bones of cows.  Can you say GROSS?!?!  

Today on The Kind Life, I found a list of vegan friendly sugar sans ground up animals bits:

  • American Crystal
  • American Crystal Sugar Company
  • Florida Crystals Refinery
  • Imperial Sugar Company
  • Irish Sugar Ltd.,
  • Monitor Sugar Company
  • Refined Sugars Incorporated
  • Sucanat
  • Wholesome Sweeteners
  • Supreme Sugar Company (subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland)
  • Sugar in the Raw
    Cumberland Packing Corp.

I generally do not use sugar in my day-to-day diet; however, the holidays are nearly upon us and I do plan on baking some vegan desserts.  In the past I have used Coconut Crystals; however, I have found that sometimes you just don’t get the right amount of sweetness from it.  I do have to make my weekly pilgrimage to Whole Paycheck, I mean Foods, so I will root around for one of the aforementioned brands.

Happy Vegan Thanksgiving everyone!


Ban Plastic Bags

This was recently posted on

so I am posting it on my blog.  Please ban your use of plastic bags. If you do not believe plastic bags are having an adverse effect on our environment, then watch this video from the site:

I always carry and/or keep in my car small and large Whole Foods reusable bags. There really is no excuse not to use cloth bags.  I can remember a time when plastic bags didn’t exist and we had to bring our own paper bags to the grocery store.  This was during the 1970s. 

If you care at all about Mother Earth, please make the effort and stop using plastic bags. 

Thank you.