Nutrition claims are confusing. How do you know if you should pay more for a carton of eggs or package of meat based on a claim on the package? Is it legit, or made up by a marketing team to make their food stand out from competitive products on grocery store shelves? This post will help you sort through the confusion on common food claims including cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free and differences in egg quality scores so you can choose which option is best for you.
Eggs: Cage-Free, Free-Range & AA, A and B Quality
Cage-free (eggs) – “cage-free” refers to the environment the hens (hens lay eggs) live in. Cage-free hens are housed in an environment allowing unlimited access to food, water and freedom to roam. There is no known nutrition difference in eggs produced by hens that are cage-free versus those that are not cage-free1.
AA quality eggs – the shells must be “clean, unbroken and practically normal.” Also, the white must be clear and reasonably firm, with a clear distinction between white and yolk. The yolk must be free from apparent defects. The air cell—the part of the egg that separates the inner shell membrane from the outer shell membrane—for AA quality eggs must not exceed 1/8 inch2.
A quality eggs – the only difference between AA and A quality eggs is the air cell. The air cell for A quality eggs must not exceed 3/16 of an inch2.
B quality eggs – the shells must be unbroken, but may be abnormal or have slightly stained areas. Shells with prominent stains or dirt are not permitted. The egg white can be weak and watery, while the yoke may be dark and large and flattened. Small blood or meat spots may be present2.
Meat and Dairy Claims
Pasture-raised, free-range, free-roaming – the animals have continuous, unrestricted access to pasture (land covered with grass and other plants) throughout their lives. Cattle and sheep must not be confined to a feedlot. Pigs must have continuous access to pasture for at least 80% of their life. You might see “free-range – never confined to feedlot,” on your meat3.
Antibiotic-free or No Antibiotics – all meat, milk and other dairy products are free from antibiotics. Therefore, a package of meat that says “antibiotic-free” is no different from the one next to it that does not carry this claim. When an animal is on antibiotics, their milk is not sold, and they cannot be slaughtered for meat. Instead, the farmer must wait until all traces of medication have cleared the animal’s body before the cow can be milked or the animal can be sent for slaughter. For more on this topic as related to milk, click here.
Humanely raised – this term makes me think of a farmer who knows each animal by name; pets and cares for them daily while attending to their needs. However, this isn’t the case. “Humanely raised” is a term made up by food companies. There is no formal definition and therefore, it is up to the food company to decide what they consider humanely raised. Ignore it.
Naturally raised – there is no official definition for naturally raised. Therefore, this claim could mean anything. Ignore it.
Grass-fed – there is no universally accepted, standardized definition for the term grass-fed. All cows, sheep and goats eat grass for most of their lives. However, some of these animals are grain-finished—they spend several months on a grain-based diet until they reach their ideal weight. At this time, their diet consists of grains, grass, vitamin and mineral mixes, citrus pulp and other feed as determined by an animal nutritionist based on their dietary needs. Other animals are grass-finished, they consume grass their entire life, and may be given vitamin and mineral mixes as needed. There are no nutrition differences between grain-finished and grass-finished meat.
Food is a very competitive business. Consumers may choose a product based on a variety of factors including great packaging, superior taste and good nutrition value. Food claims may sway your decision; however, be sure you’re getting what you are paying for. Look for claims that are backed by a standardized definition, versus those with no definition.
- Questions and Answers About Shell Eggs. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
- United States Standards, Grades and Weight Classes for Shell Eggs AMS 56. USDA.
- Federal Register. Vol. 67, No. 250. United States Standards for Livestock and Meat Marketing Claims. 67 FR 79552. Federal Department of Agriculture.
Marie Spano is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. All opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.