Don't Be Fooled: How to See Through Misleading Food Marketing
With the success of the local food movement, we’re seeing a lot of something called “greenwashing.” This is the attempt, usually by food companies, to convince you that their product is healthier, more sustainable, or more humanely produced than it is.
But don't be intimidated. To help you navigate the supermarket, we’ve outlined the marketing terms and greenwashing techniques you’ll want to be wary of when looking for the product that meets your standards.
"Natural" or "All Natural"
According to the USDA, these terms apply to a final food product (rather than a raw, whole food), one that has undergone “minimal processing.” Unfortunately, the definition of “minimal” isn’t clear. For example, high fructose corn syrup could be considered “natural,” even though it’s heavily processed and generally undesirable. Look for further explanation of the "natural" claim on the label and an ingredient list. Above all, take the term with a grain of salt.
This is most commonly used to describe eggs. Considering that any place that raises chickens, no matter what the living conditions are, is technically a farm, where else would eggs come from? This term is utterly meaningless.
"Free Roaming" or "Free Range"
You may see this on meat or eggs, maybe even dairy, but the USDA only regulates the term as it applies to poultry, and it just means that the facility must prove that birds have access to the outdoors. This could mean that the birds spend most of their time outside in a fenced-in, grassy run, or they may spend their entire lives in a barn that is equipped with a motion-detecting door that would open if the birds approached it. (Farmers that run these establishments will tell you the birds don't go near the door, since the food is in the barn). As for other animals, the term isn’t regulated, but typically means that the animals are not caged or crated individually.
What this term means (or should mean) is that the animals used to make this food were raised without added hormones. (I say, "should mean," because all plants and animals naturally produce hormones.) However, this term is meaningless and misleading when applied to poultry, eggs, or pork, since added hormones are always illegal in poultry and swine production. "Hormone-free bacon" is not a selling point when all bacon is produced without added hormones.
Why would we want to be wary of this term if we are looking for humanely raised meat, eggs and dairy? Because “humane” does not have a universal definition in the food system. Is beak-trimming or tail-docking humane? Some would say so. (We'd disagree with them, of course.) If the item doesn’t have more info on how it defines "humane," the term is worthless.
Because the USDA doesn’t regulate terms like “humane” or "pastured," there are several third-party certification organizations that do. This type of organization will compile a list of standards. Any farm or food brand hoping to display the organization's certification seal must meet those standards, usually under audit. The main difference between different third-party certification agencies is their standards. We recommend three main third-party certification agencies:
At the moment, these are the only certifications we recommend, so before you trust any other certification seal, be sure to research them, specifically the standards they require of farms. Just because the word “humane” is in the seal doesn’t mean the certification standards meet your own definition for humane.
Beware: some food companies create their own certification seals. A proprietary certification may contain the words, “sustainable,” “humane” or some other desirable term, but upon further investigation, there might not be any standards associated with the "certification," or the standards were written to fit the existing production practices of the food company.
As a general rule, don't trust a certification seal unless you are familiar with its standards.
More subliminal than marketing language is imagery. A bacon label featuring a smiling pig, an egg carton showing a panorama of rolling pasture. These speak to us subconsciously, and can be misleading because there is no law that says label imagery has to match production practices. The only time you should not totally ignore label imagery is when there's a photograph with a caption that explicitly states the photograph was taken on the farm.
You don't have to be a marketing genius to see through greenwashing tactics. A healthy dash of skepticism and a familiarity with the common terms and techniques listed above should be all you need to find food that is marketed honestly.
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