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Decoding the Carton: How to Shop for Healthy Dairy and Eggs

Decoding the Carton: How to Shop for Healthy Dairy and Eggs



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Cows and chickens do us some pretty big favors. Milk and eggs are packed full of essential protein, calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12, and are enjoyed at breakfast (and dinner) tables all over the world. Low-fat dairy foods are also great for burning fat, too. Products such as Greek yogurt, mozzarella, and cottage cheese contain very little carbohydrates and a large amount of good bacteria that help promote a healthy gut, which in turns promotes satiety and healthy digestion. Because they’re also great sources for calcium and vitamin D, they help breakdown and release fats more efficiently, as well.

Unfortunately, some bad must come with the good: whole, unprocessed milk is rather high in fat, and eggs carry a lot of cholesterol in their little packages. If you’ve chosen to keep milk and eggs in your diet, you’re probably aware of these dietary caveats, but you might not know just how much a difference organic, ethical sourcing can make to these foods’ nutritional values. Reading the labels on your milk and egg cartons more closely will not only guarantee that you support farmers with the happiest animals, but it will provide the best support for your health.

American dairy farmers have access to a literal "cash cow" — bovine growth hormone (BGH). The hormone raises the body’s insulin growth factor, so the cow produces up to 60 percent more milk than an animal on an organic, hormone-free diet. This may seem like progress, but it comes with a price: in a study of U.S. women, the presence of high levels of insulin growth factor was found to raise the risk of breast cancer by seven times, as well as elevating the risks of colon and prostate cancers. And the pasteurization process that means to get rid of all the nasty things that can hide out in milk doesn’t eliminate the factor, so you could be dunking your cookies in some dangerous stuff.

Organic milk from pastured cows is naturally lower in fat, has a higher nutritional value, and contains more essential fatty acids (such as omega-3) than milk from conventional dairy cows. If the nutritional specs don’t convince you, then imagine this: a gloomy shed packed full of cows, each one standing in its own manure until it’s time to be milked. Now picture a green field full of peaceful cows, free to wander and graze until milking time. Which cow’s milk would you rather drink?

But before you dash off to buy the first carton of organic milk you see, pay attention: just because dairy is labeled as "organic," doesn’t mean it came from a grass-fed cow.

The organic label guarantees that:

  • The product comes from cows fed an organic diet with no animal byproducts
  • If cows are grass-fed, the pastures where they graze are chemical-free
  • No antibiotics or hormones are allowed
  • Grain feed does not contain genetically modified material

Organic farmers often test milk for pathogens that could harm humans, while conventional dairy farmers just send it off to be pasteurized at ultra-high temperatures that kill both bad bacteria and good nutrients and enzymes. Ultra-pasteurized milk has a shelf-life of six weeks — is that what you would call fresh?


The color of the shell is simply that: a color. Different breeds of hens lay different colored eggs, most commonly white or brown but also blue, green, or speckled. Shell color isn't an indicator of health or flavor or quality—but brown eggs are a lot better for Instagram.

Eggs are graded according to USDA guidelines. Grade AA and Grade A are practically interchangeable—they indicate eggs that have thick whites, yolks that are free from defects, and clean shells. Grade B is noticeably different: the whites are thin and the shells are blemished. You'll find Grade A eggs at the grocery store Grade B is typically reserved for industrial use.

The Best of Both Worlds: Frambled Eggs


Decoding the carton: How to buy clean & humane eggs | Goop

While it’s well-documented that industrial egg farming is a controversial business (cue Food Inc), and there are a slew of egg purveyors who are rushing to do better with USDA organic options, there’s still a lot of murkiness around how laying hens are actually treated, and the conditions in which they are raised. Like free-range. For us, that’s always conjured images of hens that are, ya know, home on the range, but the reality of the claim—which actually is one regulated by the USDA—is not very bucolic. It’s really, really confusing stuff—and honestly, best solved by checking in on the companies whose eggs you most frequently buy to understand exactly how their hens are treated (we use Vital Farms or eggs from the farmer’s market at goop). Below, some information on what the labels mean, as well as some companies who seem to be doing the right thing, care of Adele Douglass, the Executive Director of Humane Farm Animal Care. As far as third party certification programs, their Certified Humane seal is the most widely recognized and respected in the industry.

ORGANIC
This label is regulated by the USDA. According to the USDA, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” While we found a reference on the USDA blog to organic eggs coming from hens who have liberal access to the outdoors, this doesn’t always seem to be the case. “Outdoor access means nothing,” explains Douglass. “It doesn’t mean the hens actually go outdoors—this could mean that there’s a little door, that if the farmer were to open the door they could “access” the outdoors. There are actually no space requirements.” For example, according to Whole Foods website, their 365 brand organic cage-free (see below for more on cage-free) eggs come from hens who live in a hen house, under a blend of artificial and natural light. There’s no mention of any of those hens actually going outside.

NON-GMO
Again, this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how a hen is treated—but it does mean that the hens are fed a diet that is free from GMOs. That does not mean that the food is organic.

VEGETARIAN FEED
So hens aren’t officially vegetarians. When given pasture access, they eat worms and grubs, etc. This essentially means that the feed they’re given doesn’t have animal byproducts, like ground up chicken, or who knows what else.

CAGE-FREE
This label is regulated by the USDA, and means what it suggests: “Hens can move freely within the building/hen house, and have unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.” As Douglass points out, there are no space requirements. For Certified Humane status, “there must be 1.5 square feet per hen, litter for dust bathing, perches for the birds, and ammonia levels at a maximum of 10ppm, which means the scent is imperceptible.” While a life lived completely indoors seems like a horrible thing, Douglass acknowledges that in many parts of the country, the weather just doesn’t allow for outdoor access all year long.

FREE-RANGE
This label is also regulated by the USDA, and acknowledges “continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle, which may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.” As mentioned in organic, it doesn’t actually stipulate what that outdoor access really means, or how much space is required. “Anyone can put free-range on their labels,” explains Douglass. “That’s precisely why we made a specific standard.” For Certified Humane, this means that free-range hens have a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per bird.

PASTURE-RAISED
This is not regulated by the USDA, “due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems.” But this is the bucolic life of a hen that you’re imagining, so long as certain criteria are met. For Certified Humane, it’s 108-square-feet per bird, which is the same standard adopted by Animal Welfare Approved. It mirrors the mandate used in Europe, which was established by the British Soil Society in 1946. According to Douglass, “It’s based on science: you don’t ruin the land because you divide your acreage into fifths and rotate the flock so they don’t completely denude the ground.” Currently, Vital Farms is the only egg purveyor that is accredited as Pasture Raised by Certified Humane.

NATURAL
“Natural means nothing,” says Douglass. Per the USDA, “Meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.”

NO ADDED HORMONES
So here’s a funny thing: Federal regulations have never allowed the use of hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goats. You want to look out for a label that indicates that no antibiotics were used.

HUMANE
This is also not regulated by the USDA. Besides Humane Farm Animal Care, which operates under the Certified Humane seal and looks after farm animals and food production (you can see their full list of recipients here, who must be reassessed annually), there’s also Animal Welfare Approved, which focuses on smaller purveyors (farmers can’t have a flock of more than 500 birds). “That is a very positive thing,” explains Douglass.

EGG PURVEYORS WHO ARE DOING IT WELL
We asked Adele Douglass for a shortlist of companies—both big and small—that are making strides in hen welfare.

KIRKLAND
The organic eggs from Costco brand Kirkland are Certified Humane: While not pasture raised, they’re cage- and antibiotic-free. They’ve partnered with several small family farms throughout the country, which guarantees peace of mind for Costco and gives these smaller purveyors a steady stream of business.

VITAL FARMS
Vital Farms is kicking ass in the egg business. They work with small family-run farms, and have their own operations, too, which are scattered throughout the warmer states, like California and Georgia, which is how they’re the only company to receive a Pasture-Raised designation from Certified Humane. The hens spend the daylight hours outside—with at least 108 square feet per bird—where they’re rotated from pasture to pasture (see above on why this is so important). And then they’re gathered up at night to sleep in hen houses to stay safe from predators. The difference between the various Vital Farms cartons—and subsequently in the price-points—is in the feed: Vital Farms Organic Eggs and Pasture Verde eggs (USDA organic feed, which means that from day two of life, these hens have been fed organic, non-GMO feed) Backyard Eggs (Feed is not organic but still non-GMO) Alfresco Eggs and Texas Chicken Ranch (the hens receive the same pasture-raised status, but feed is standard).

SAFEWAY
As far as major grocery retailers go, Safeway is setting a pretty high bar for humane egg production, a banner they took up in 2008. Their cage-free eggs—Lucerne, O-Organics, and Open Nature—all meet HFAC’s standards for hen welfare.

PETE & JERRY’S ORGANIC
The original Pete & Jerry’s is a fourth generation organic farm in New Hampshire that’s been in business for over 60 years. To expand the distribution of their cage-free, organic eggs, they’ve enlisted 30 more family farms just like theirs—most are in Pennsylvania—to team up.

NELLIE’S NEST EGGS
According to Douglass, the family who runs Nellie’s—also a part of Pete & Jerry’s egg farming family—are “nice, nice people.” Who can’t get behind that? In 2013, they also became the first B-Corp certified egg provider in the US, which means they are 100% committed to sustainable business practices and the welfare of their employees.

WILCOX
The Wilcox sustainable farm in Washington has been supplying the Pacific Northwest with eggs since 1909. In 2005, they began the process of becoming 100% cage-free. They also produce a non-GMO line.

PHIL’S FRESH EGGS
Illinois-based Phil’s has been a cage-free farm since 1959. The other focus here is on wholesome feeding methods, which result in the best possible tasting eggs. Over the years, they’ve developed a corn and soybeans “recipe” (both are grown on the farm) which is then mixed with alfalfa and kelp for optimal nutritional value of the hens.

STIEBRS FARMS
Stiebrs Farms in Washington has been operated by the same family for over 60 years and does everything from producing organic, non-GMO feed to packaging to marketing in-house. Like Vital Farms and Wilcox, they also offer several tiers of eggs—organic, pasture raised, and cage-free—at different price points.


Decoding the Carton: How to Shop for Healthy Dairy and Eggs - Recipes

Grass-fed. Grass-finished. Pasture-raised. Free-range. Hormone-free. Antibiotic-free. Organic. Natural. The array of labels and terms to navigate when shopping for meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs is downright dizzying.

But there&rsquos also a reason for the label claim madness: When it comes to these categories of foods, there&rsquos a lot more at stake than just the pesticides we worry about in fruits and vegetables. Industrial livestock farming has created a myriad of factors to consider that concern not only your health and what may be in the food, but also animal welfare and the environmental impact.

Complicating matters is the fact that, while all the different terms on labels do inform consumers of what they&rsquore buying, manufacturers&rsquo intentions aren&rsquot always pure or clear.

&ldquoUnfortunately, a lot of the terms you see come down to marketing,&rdquo says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan. &ldquoIf manufacturers can offer a better product, they can charge more and people are usually willing to pay it. But if a manufacturer can instead give the illusion of a better product by slapping on a certain label, it allows them to charge more without actually increasing their costs.&rdquo That, of course, boosts the company&rsquos bottom line, but leaves you duped.

Government regulations can sometimes make deciphering labels even trickier, since there are different rules in place for chickens, eggs, milk, beef and seafood. And sly manufacturers may take advantage of the fact that most consumers aren&rsquot aware of them.

For example, milk is never allowed to contain antibiotic residue &mdash and several required testing protocols ensure none slip through. Yet you may still see a label that states &ldquono antibiotics&rdquo or &ldquoantibiotic-free,&rdquo even if the dairy cow was treated with the drugs at some point in their life.

So it pays to educate yourself on what each of the terms and various labels mean. Doing so allows you to make smart decisions about which products are worth buying and even paying extra for. However the two smartest strategies when it comes to buying and consuming animal products have nothing to do with labels, Dr. Rawls says.

2 Label-Free Strategies for Smart Grocery Shopping

1. Eat More Vegetables and Cut Back On Animal Products

Aim to make about 50% of your diet vegetables, and try to swap out animal sources of protein for plant sources like soy foods, beans, and nuts when you can. Plants contain so many key nutrients and phytochemicals that are a boon for your health &mdash animal sources just can&rsquot compete, Dr. Rawls says.

For one, plants contain fiber that helps maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, which has implications for the health of your immune system, digestive tract, brain, and much more. They&rsquore also rich in antioxidants and other compounds that help protect your heart, brain, mitochondria (the &ldquopower plants&rdquo of cells), and more.

Overall, a diet rich in veggies and fruit has been shown to reduce blood pressure and your risk of heart disease and some types of cancer, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. It also promotes weight loss and keeps blood glucose and insulin levels steady, which controls hunger and could help prevent diabetes. Studies also show a diet loaded with fresh produce is associated with improved longevity.

On the other hand, a high intake of meat, especially processed meat and pork, is linked with higher risk of cardiovascular problems and reduced longevity. For example, one study that looked at the dietary data of nearly 30,000 people over 30 years found that the risk of cardiovascular disease increased by 7% and 3%, respectively, for every additional serving of processed and unprocessed red meat per week. Risk rose 4% for every additional serving of chicken per week over two.

Fish consumption, however, was not linked to heart or other problems. This is likely due in part to its health-protecting omega-3 fatty acids.

2. Buy Directly from Small, Local Farms When You Can

You don&rsquot have to go totally vegetarian in order to live your healthiest life, however, Dr. Rawls says. But if you choose to eat meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy, the best thing you can do for your health &mdash in terms of minimizing exposure to toxins and maximizing healthful nutrients &mdash as well as for the health of the environment and animals is to purchase the products directly from local, sustainable farms or farmers, he says.

On a non-industrial scale, farmers better control what the animals eat and how they&rsquore treated, and they tend to take more steps to ensure environmentally sound farming practices. You can also often visit the farm and ask questions directly.

&ldquoTake eggs, for example,&rdquo Dr. Rawls says. &ldquoThe perfect egg comes from a hen that is able to go out every day and forage for worms, insects, and vegetable matter, then, at night, go into its little house where it has room to move around.&rdquo

That virtually is unheard of on a conventional industrial farm and perhaps even a large organic operation. Instead, chickens used for conventionally-produced eggs often spend all or most of their time crammed into a warehouse or even a cage with thousands of others, where they&rsquore fed a steady diet of corn, grain, and potentially antibiotics, he says.

&ldquoYou can tell the difference in the yolks &mdash conventional yolks are often a pale yellow and bland,&rdquo says Dr. Rawls. &ldquoFarm egg yolks, meanwhile, are a bright vibrant orange and highly flavorful, because they&rsquore loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and all kinds of wonderful antioxidants.&rdquo

The issues, of course, are cost and availability. Eggs, dairy, and meat from these smaller farms tend to be several times the cost of conventional products &mdash and they can be hard to find at a local supermarket. The best place to connect with a local farm is at your neighborhood farmer&rsquos market.

&ldquoBut you&rsquoll usually end up paying $6 or even $7 for a carton of eggs,&rdquo Dr. Rawls says. &ldquoEven if a smaller farm can scale production to sell their products in a grocery store, the cost is still going to be quite high.&rdquo

Use This Glossary to Decode Food Labels

If buying direct from farmers isn&rsquot an option, the next best thing is to look on labels to find the healthiest and best products. It&rsquos not always easy, but knowing the truth of what&rsquos behind the terms will help. Here&rsquos the terminology you&rsquore most likely to come across, what claim means, and what to consider when deciding where to spend your money.

USDA Certified Organic

This green seal, which may appear on meat, dairy, and egg products, means the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has certified that the manufacturers follow a strict set of standards and guidelines around animal welfare, health, environmental, and other concerns.

For example, animals must be given access to the outdoors, including a pasture for cows, sheep, and goats, and any supplemental feed given must be organic and non-genetically modified (or non-GMO). Likewise, animals are never given growth hormones or antibiotics. If they get sick and require medication, they&rsquore removed and not certified.

For those reasons &mdash and the fact that organic products are now widely available and becoming increasingly affordable &mdash defaulting to organic can be a simple and sound choice when shopping. But know that organic doesn&rsquot mean everything&rsquos perfect.

Although these animals have access to the outdoors, their diets are often still supplemented with grain or other feed. For instance, for a cow to be certified organic, it need only graze for a minimum of about 4 months of the year, which is a fraction of its lifespan. (See grass-fed and grass-finished section below for more information.)

As far as the treatment of animals, organic doesn&rsquot necessarily equal cruelty-free, either. There may be little or no oversight on whether the animals are slaughtered humanely, and physical alterations to animals may be performed, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It&rsquos been reported both that they could end up suffering more due to increased exposure to the elements outdoors, and that because antibiotics are banned, some organic farms may opt to leave livestock sick and untreated rather than remove them from the line and take a financial loss.

Grass-Fed, Pasture-Raised, and Grass-Finished

Grass-fed and pasture-raised cows and dairy products tend to be the healthiest choices because they contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. They also have healthier fat profiles overall and other healthy characteristics, thanks to a higher level of grass and phytochemicals in the animals&rsquo diets, according to a review in Nutrition Journal.

These foods are also generally less fatty overall, Dr. Rawls says. While the argument can be made that the amount of omegas and other nutrients is negligible compared to those of foods like fish and produce &mdash especially if you aren&rsquot eating much meat in the first place &mdash it&rsquos still worth the additional cost, he says. Why?

First, it&rsquos not necessarily the omegas and nutrients that matter &mdash although every little bit may help. Instead, it&rsquos more about what you&rsquore not adding to your system via conventionally produced meat, Dr. Rawls says.

What&rsquos more, a recent paper in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition suggests the meat and dairy from grass-fed, pasture-roaming livestock may &ldquocontain phytochemicals&hellip [that] protect meat and dairy from protein oxidation and lipid peroxidation that cause low-grade systemic inflammation implicated in heart disease and cancer in humans.&rdquo

The paper also suggests that grass-fed livestock could play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions &mdash of which agriculture is responsible for a quarter &mdash if producers also incorporate other smart practices. That might include farmland restoration, managed grazing, silvopasture (the practice of intentionally combining trees, forage plants, and livestock together to create a sustainable, integrated ecosystem), and other strategies.

Keep in mind, though, that the grass-fed and pasture-raised designations don&rsquot necessarily mean the animal spent its entire existence happily roaming a lush, green field munching grass. The terms are poorly regulated, and manufacturers using the claims may fatten up cattle with grain at the end of its life.

So, if you can find a product labeled grass-finished, which suggests the animal was indeed fed grass throughout its entire life, that&rsquos the better bet, Dr. Rawls says. Just keep in mind that unless the label also states the meat or dairy product is organic or makes other separate claims, that grass-fed or grass-finished cow may also have been fed antibiotics or hormones.

Antibiotics Claims

These may be the trickiest of all to understand. Here are the key facts you should know.

1. It&rsquos highly unlikely any food contains antibiotic residue.

Whether you buy organic or conventional products or those that only make antibiotic-free claims, you will not be consuming drug residue. If an animal is given the bacteria-fighting drugs for any reason &mdash preventatively or for growth or to treat illness &mdash it must be cleared from the animal&rsquos system before slaughter or before its milk and eggs can be sold.

2. Antibiotic use/status should still concern you.

While antibiotics are used to treat sick animals &mdash just as they are for humans &mdash they&rsquore also often used to promote growth or as a means to prevent the spread of infections among animals living in overcrowded, unnatural, and often inhumane conditions. &ldquoAbout 70% of all antibiotics are given to livestock,&rdquo Dr. Rawls says. This is troublesome because overuse and unnecessary use contribute to antibiotic-resistant &ldquosuperbugs&rdquo that can make humans very ill.

3. Look for terms like &ldquoraised without antibiotics&rdquo or &ldquono antibiotics ever.&rdquo

These claims, along with a certified-organic designation, typically mean that the animal was never given any antibiotics throughout the course of its life &mdash not for growth nor disease prevention. If an animal got sick and required drugs, it would be removed and its meat or products would not be sold under that designation.

Some manufacturers are now using other terms, however, such as &ldquono medically necessary antibiotics,&rdquo which means animals are not given the antibiotics people also take regularly, like amoxicillin. Likewise, you may see &ldquono growth-promoting antibiotics.&rdquo While that&rsquos a step above conventional, it still means the animal may have been given antibiotics prophylactically.

Finally, bear in mind that the more general term &ldquono antibiotics&rdquo isn&rsquot well regulated. Indeed, it may simply be stating the obvious &mdash that the meat or milk contains no drug residue, which it isn&rsquot allowed to have anyway.

&ldquoNo Hormones Added&rdquo or &ldquoRaised Without Hormones&rdquo

First, know that all animal products contain natural-occurring hormones &mdash they&rsquore found in muscle and fat tissue as well as in milk and eggs &mdash so this term indicates that the animals have not been given any additional natural or synthetic hormones to increase milk output or speed or improve growth. The two most common hormones used in dairy production, for example, are rBGH and rBST, which increase milk production.

But, while hormones can be given to cattle in the U.S., the government prohibits the use of hormones in all poultry and pork. That means chicken, turkey, eggs, and bacon will never contain added hormones. If you see a hormone claim on poultry or pork labels, realize it&rsquos likely a marketing tactic.

But when it comes to milk and beef, how much of a concern are these added hormones? It&rsquos difficult to say for sure. Research has found that giving cows rBGH and rBST doesn&rsquot increase hormone levels in milk (and the hormones are inactive in humans anyway). However, it does increase levels of what&rsquos known as insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which has been linked to breast, prostate, and endometrial tumors, according to the American Cancer Society, although the extent of the risk is still unknown.

Research also suggests IGF-1 and cow&rsquos milk may exacerbate acne. Adults who drink cow&rsquos milk have been found to have slightly higher levels of IGF-1 in their bodies, but so do those who drink soy milk, indicating there may be other factors at play, such as these milks&rsquo protein or other nutrients.

More concerning is that cows treated with the milk-boosting hormones are more prone to infections that necessitate the use of more antibiotics. And, as discussed above, while that may not affect the milk or your health directly, it could have a wider impact on the growing global problem of antibiotic resistance.

Conventional beef cattle, meanwhile, are given natural growth hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, as well as man-made versions to increase meat production. In terms of human health, research suggests these hormones may indeed make it into your system, but in low amounts.

It&rsquos unclear whether or how much they may impact your health, although the developing systems of children and in pregnant women could be vulnerable. Because of that uncertainty, it&rsquos worth choosing hormone-free (or organic) whenever possible, Dr. Rawls says.

Third-Party Verifications and Certifications

Because labeling can be misleading and confusing, some manufacturers go through the additional step of having third parties verify their claims.

&ldquoThese third-party seals and designations are probably your best way to find out if a label truly is honest,&rdquo Dr. Rawls says. However, keep in mind that it&rsquos usually up to you, the consumer, to research the third-party organizations to know exactly what earning a verification or certification entails.

Below are a few groups recommended as &ldquoreliable&rdquo by the EWG. Products with the following certifications generally mean antibiotics are not given except in the case of illness, no growth hormones are administered, that animals have access to the outdoors and are never in cages, and farms are subject to frequent inspections:

  • American Grassfed Association
  • Food Alliance Certified &mdash Grassfed
  • Animal Welfare Approved
  • Certified Humane
  • Global Animal Partnership
  • USDA Certified Organic

Label Claims to Ignore

If you see any of the following on labels, move on. Their meanings tend to be vague or irrelevant unless accompanied by a certification by a reputable third party like one of those mentioned above.

Cage-Free

You&rsquoll see this term on egg labels, but all it really means is that, as stated, the egg-producing birds weren&rsquot kept in cages it doesn&rsquot mean that their quality of life was necessarily better, Dr. Rawls says. They may have been packed into a warehouse with little room to move, for example. Also know that chickens and turkeys raised for meat are never allowed to be housed in cages, so on those packages, the term is pointless.

Free-Range

Similar to &ldquocage-free,&rdquo this term means only that the chicken or turkey was allowed access to the outdoors, not that it actually spent time roaming. Nor does it mean the manufacturer met any requirements for what kind or size of environment the birds were given access to. And, while manufacturers have to present the USDA with documentation to make cage-free and free-range claims, no inspections are done to verify accuracy.

Natural

The government defines a natural meat product as containing no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. That&rsquos great &mdash except most conventionally produced meat, eggs, and dairy naturally meet those requirements without even trying.

Brown Eggs

You&rsquore not eating the shell, and its color has no bearing on the health of what&rsquos inside, Dr. Rawls says. Yet brown eggs often cost more than white, even when there are no other discernible differences in how they were produced.

Humanely Raised

Says who? According to the EWC, there is no legal definition or requirements for this term, nor on-site inspections required.

While you may not have realized what a minefield your grocery store&rsquos meat, egg, and dairy departments were, educating yourself as to what you&rsquore buying is empowering. Being in the know enables you to make the most sound, healthiest choices for you and your family.

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Understanding egg products

  • Brown eggs: These are no more healthful than white eggs. The color of an egg&rsquos shell depends on the hen&rsquos genetics and has nothing to do with nutrition. Some chickens lay blue and green eggs.
  • Fertile eggs: There is no health benefit to eating fertile eggs, considered a delicacy in some cultures in terms of nutritional value they are virtually identical to unfertilized eggs, but they spoil more quickly. Most eggs sold are infertile anyway.
  • Lutein-enhanced eggs: These come from hens fed marigold extract to bump up the lutein content. A low intake of lutein (a carotenoid) has been implicated as a risk factor in age-related macular degeneration.
  • Omega-3-enriched: These eggs have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids, but you need to read the label to determine the type present. If the hens&rsquo feed was enriched with flaxseed meal, the eggs will have increased levels of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a plant form of omega-3 fat. Once eaten, however, only a small proportion of ALA gets converted to the long-chain heart-healthy omega-3 fats known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). If the feed is enriched directly with EPA and DHA from fish oil or marine algae, the label will show that the eggs have higher levels of these nutrients&mdashbut still not much. Keep in mind that as with all specialty eggs, these cost more.
  • Animal Welfare Approved: This is the highest degree of humane rules and auditing standards. Hens must be cage-free with continual access to outdoor perching and ability to engage in natural behaviors, such as nesting, spreading wings, dust bathing, etc. Beak cutting is prohibited.
  • Cage-free: There are currently no national standards for cage-free egg production in the U.S., but the term usually means the hens are not in cages (though still indoors). It&rsquos considered more humane than the crowded cages that house the majority of egg-laying hens in the U.S., because cage-free hens may have more room to walk and spread their wings, for example&mdashbut the birds may still be subject to other questionable practices, such as beak cutting.
  • Certified Humane: These eggs are from hens that are not caged and must have enough space to engage in natural behaviors&mdashbut they may be indoors all the time. And beak cutting is still allowed. There is third-party auditing for compliance.
  • Certified Organic: Organic eggs come from hens fed certified organically grown vegetarian feed, with no added hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides. The hens are not caged and must have access to outdoors&mdashhowever, the length of time outdoors and the quality of the space is not defined. Moreover, forced molting and debeaking are still permitted. If you choose to buy organic, look for the USDA Organic seal. Keep in mind, though, that organic eggs aren&rsquot necessarily safer from bacteria than other eggs it depends on the sanitation conditions of that farm and other factors. Nor are they more nutritious than conventionally produced ones.
  • Food Alliance Certified: Hens are cage-free and must have access to outdoors or natural daylight. There are specific limits on the density of the bird population. Beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified by third-party auditing.
  • Natural: This fuzzy term is not regulated by any organization or federal agency and can mean different things to different egg producers. It does not preclude the use of antibiotics or anything else in the hens, and there are no standard rules about chicken feed or living conditions.
  • Free-range or Free-roaming: Egg-laying hens are not caged and must have access to the outdoors. But&mdashand this is key&mdashthe amount of time and space provided is not mandated, and there&rsquos no way of knowing whether the birds have actually gone outside.
  • United Egg Producers Certified: This is a voluntary trade group program that most egg producers adhere to. Hens are supposed to be given nutritious feed, clean water, light and fresh air, but are caged indoors in a given amount of space&mdash67 to 86 square inches of space per bird (at most, that&rsquos about the area of a single sheet of letter-sized paper). Forced molting is prohibited, but beak trimming is allowed so the birds don&rsquot harm each other. According to the Humane Society, the UEP seal is &ldquobased on standards that are falsely claimed to ensure that hens are treated humanely,&rdquo and the guidelines permit routine inhumane factory farm practices.

Egg Cartons: What's Best?

More often than not, eggs are packaged in white foam cartons and not the familiar old cardboard cartons. Some are now packaged in clear plastic. Which is best?


Don’t be fooled by these labels

Some labels and seals aren’t as honest as they seem. In fact, some are nothing more than outright misleading – so make sure you keep an eye out for the following unregulated labels as you shop.

Natural or Organic

Most shoppers believe that foods bearing a “natural” label are actually organic – Consumer Reports found that shoppers believe natural implies a food is free of pesticides and antibiotics, and that it meets other organic standards. Unfortunately, foods that claim to be natural typically don’t offer any of these benefits.

The FDA doesn’t really regulate the use of the word “natural”, and food manufacturers are able to use it however they’d like. There’s no guarantee that any natural or organic food is free of unnatural, artificial ingredients or GMOs. And there’s no way to verify whether or not these foods have undergone any verification or certification process.

The USDA Organic certification is the only organic label that matters. Any other food products that claim to be organic or natural likely don’t meet the USDA’s strict standards. And you should be wary of any natural labels, as there’s no way to vet whether or not they’re truly natural.

Pasture-Raise or Free-Range

While phrases like pasture-raised and free-range make it sound like food products are created in a humane way, they’re nothing more than unregulated terms. Typically found on cartons of eggs, these two statements are intended to imply the hens who produced the eggs were treated humanely.

However, pasture-raised doesn’t really mean anything at all. Technically, hens could have been raised in a pasture they could’ve also been raised in cramped, inhumane conditions on a larger pasture. It doesn’t mean any particular standards have been met, and it isn’t a term that’s supported by third-party verification. Similarly, free-range is a claim that’s supposed to tell shoppers that hens were allowed to move around freely. Unfortunately, it also has no verification behind it.

Unless a food product carries a pasture-raised or free-range label along with a Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved stamp, you can’t trust that its claims are accurate. According to Eater , these two certifications are the only way to verify that the foods were produced with truly humane practices.

Reduced Sodium

While we mentioned above that low sodium is a great label to look for, you’re going to want to be skeptical if you spot “reduced sodium” labels on your packaged foods. It’s one of those labels that sounds healthier than it actually is.

The phrase is monitored and regulated – it’s supposed to be used only on foods that feature 25 percent less sodium than their full-sodium counterparts. For example, a bag of reduced sodium chips should contain 25 percent less sodium than the “full sodium” alternative.

Unfortunately, there are no other requirements for the use of a reduced sodium label. These foods don’t have to be low in sodium they also don’t have to contain a healthy amount of sodium, or the recommended daily total of 2,300 milligrams. As long as the item has less food than a saltier alternative, it’s all good to claim it offers reduced sodium.

So, a food that technically qualifies as reduced sodium could still pack a huge amount of sodium into every serving. These products likely offer way more sodium than you should actually eat each day. Make sure to check out the nutritional information to assess how much sodium you’ll really be getting in each serving.

Reduced Sugar

Like reduced sodium, a reduced sugar claim on any food is a red flag. This claim is held to the exact same FDA standards: as long as the food product contains 25 percent less sugar than the original, it’s free to claim it offers less sugar. Any food that meets this requirement can also use phrases or labels like “less sugar” or “low in sugar.”

This means that a reduced sugar food could still contain quite a lot of sugar. There’s no maximum amount of sugar or limitations present. So, you’ll want to double-check the nutrition label to know just how much sugar a single serving actually includes.

It’s also important to keep sugar substitutes and additives in mind when you see the reduced sugar phrase on food. Frequently, food products that cut back on sugar add sugar substitutes in order to keep the sweetness. Reduced sugar products may not be as healthy as they appear to be at first glance.


Keep reading to see how to make the healthiest, most ethical, and sustainable options when consuming meat, dairy, and eggs.


Photo: Stocksy/Sean Locke

What a food advocate says: When it comes to buying meat, Hamerschlag says there are three labels to look for:

  • USDA organic: “Organic means the animal was born and raised on certified organic pastures, so there are no chemicals in the grass or in the area that [the animal] was raised, and none of the feed was sprayed with [synthetic] pesticides, so you&rsquore not getting as many pesticides when you eat the animal,” Hamerschlag explains.
  • Grass-fed: Hamerschlag says this means that the animals ate grass as opposed to feed, which leads to a more nutrient-rich meat. “There&rsquos also the Global Animal Partnership, which is a step process from 1 to 5 and a certification Whole Foods uses for all their meat,” Hamerschlag says. “You want to look for a step 4 or 5 because those steps mean the animals had access to pasture and were able to graze.”
  • Certified Humane: The animals were treated ethically from birth to death, with regular access to food, water, and the outdoors and antibiotics only being used when the animal is sick. “Another label you’ll see sometimes that’s a good one is ‘Animal Welfare Approved,’ which means no hormones or antibiotics were ever used,” Hamerschlag says. (It should be noted that it’s illegal in the US for farmers to use growth hormones on pork or poultry, though it is legal for beef.)

Hamerschlag says Certified USDA Organic and American Grassfed Association labeling indicates important benefits for the environment, too. “Rather than using these harsh chemical [pesticides and fertilizers] that pollute the air, water, and soil, USDA organic farms use natural fertilizers and compost to grow healthy forage. They often but not always use sustainable practices such as crop rotation and cover crops to maintain soil fertility.” And meat that doesn’t use antibiotics “reduces the amount of antibiotics that get into our water supply through manure run-off. It also helps to reduce the potential for the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which is a very big threat to sustainability of our world,” she says.

She adds that grass-fed animals, who wander freely and graze in farmland, also contribute to healthy plant growth, healthy soils, and healthy habitat for many beneficial wild critters &mdash including bees and butterflies. “Animals provide natural pest and weed control, reducing the need for pesticides,” she adds.

Of course, buying organic, grass-fed, and Certified Humane meat can be expensive&mdashone reason why Hamerschlag is a fan of either cutting back on meat consumption in favor of more plant-based proteins. She also recommends buying meat in bulk (say, a quarter of the animal) and freezing what you don’t eat right away to eat later. “Regardless of the type of meat consumers buy, we are eating too much, so if we truly want to be sustainable, we have to eat both less and better,” she says.

What a registered dietitian says: On the health front, Dickens agrees that organic, grass-fed is definitely the way to go. “Grass-fed meat is significantly higher in omega-3 fatty acids,” she says. “Grains [from feed] on the other hand, tend to be higher in omega-6 fatty acids.” While there’s nothing wrong with omega-6 acids per se, she says Western diets are higher in omega-6s than omega-3s, a ratio that can lead to inflammation. Her other big health call-out for meat is to look for antibiotic-free. “We’re seeing a lot of antibiotic resistance, so that’s something we really need to think about,” Dickens says.

Companies going above and beyond: When friends and chefs Chris Carter and James Peisker co-founded Porter Road&mdashthe first online, whole animal butcher shop&mdash10 years ago, their mission was simple. They wanted to work directly with farmers they could trust, ensuring the animals were pasture-raised and free of antibiotics or hormones&mdashultimately leading to more nutrient-rich, better-tasting meat.

Carter and Peisker say that ten years ago, it was hard for them to find farmers who could meet their standards, but now farmers are coming to them, partially because they see how animals roaming the land has contributed to richer soil. That’s why working with meat suppliers who practice regenerative agriculture is a pillar of Porter Road’s mission. Peisker explains that regenerative agriculture&mdashwhich prioritizes animal and plant farming that brings more oxygen into the soil and increases biodiversity&mdashleads to better soil and plant health, which the animals feed on, and therefore leads to healthier animal products, too.

The company also cuts back on waste by selling the whole animal&mdasheven making new cuts that people otherwise wouldn’t know to use. “A lot of the cuts have way more flavor and are sometimes more tender and it&rsquos a more fun shopping experience to be able to shop for the whole animal,” Peisker says.

Teton Waters Ranch is another meat company with organic farming, 100-percent grass-fed animals, humane welfare, and regenerative farming as their company’s tentpoles. “Our mission evolves around supporting a disruptive, anti-status quo supply chain for beef,” CEO Mike Murray says.

Like the Porter Road founders, Murray is passionate about regenerative farming. “Our founder Jeff Russell saw how adding animals was turning the land into vibrant grassland again,” he says. “It was basically dead, multi-generational potato farm when he acquired it [in 2006].” It took two years for Russell to rehabilitate the soil by planting local seeds, building bird houses to encourage local wildlife and seed spreading, and building a greenhouse for shrubs and trees. “Just as the native grasses started to come back, wildlife, like native birds, returned and the land was regaining fertility, the housing market crashed,” Murray says. So Russell bought cattle to continue rehabilitating the land and committed to raising them 100-percent grass-fed.

Of course, the meat company still recognizes that Americans are eating too much red meat (for their health and for the environment). That’s why they launched patties earlier this year that are half meat, half mushroom, a solution they found offers more nutrient density without compromising taste or texture.

Other brands in the meat space with organic, grass-fed, and Certified Humane practices in place include Verde, Ayrshire Farm, and Bently Ranch.


Photo: Stocksy/Audrey Shtecinjo


How to Make Deviled Eggs Healthier

Learn to make the best deviled eggs with our tips on how to boil the eggs for perfect yolks, how to peel them, ingredient swaps for healthier deviled eggs and more advice.

Pictured Recipe: Easter Deviled Eggs

Deviled eggs are perfect as appetizers for any party, or as a side dish for potlucks and picnics. And of course they are a must for Easter brunch or dinner. Although making deviled eggs is pretty straightforward, it&aposs definitely possible to mess them up. It&aposs easy to add too much salt by accident. Other mistakes: way too much mustard or no mustard at all or (gag) broken eggshell in the filling.

When done right, they&aposre smooth and creamy and the filling has the perfect balance of tangy and salty flavors. And, with a few tweaks, you can make deviled eggs healthier too. Here are eight simple secrets for making the best deviled eggs every time.

1. Don't Go for the Freshest Eggs You Can Find

We know that sounds odd. For most applications, it&aposs the fresher the better. But in this case, you don&apost want to use eggs straight from the farm, because they&aposre harder to peel and you&aposll end up losing half the whites in the process. So check that date on your carton of eggs or buy them ahead at the farmers&apos market.

2. Learn How Long to Boil Eggs for Deviled Eggs

"My mom always said put them in water and boil for 12 minutes at a hard boil," says EatingWell magazine editor-in-chief Jessie Price. "Now I know gentler is better so that the yolks get just set, but not overcooked."

To properly cook hard-boiled eggs: Place eggs in a single layer in a saucepan cover with water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook at the barest simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, pour out the hot water and cover the eggs with ice-cold water. Let stand until cool enough to handle.

3. Peel Like a Pro

After you boil the eggs, run them under a little cold water so that they&aposre cool enough to handle. Then crack them all over and put them in cold water to finish cooling. This makes them easier to peel.

4. Use a Sharp Knife to Slice the Eggs

After you&aposve peeled the eggs, slice them lengthwise with a sharp knife. Using a sharp knife is good advice for any slicing task. Sharp knives not only cut better, they&aposre also safer-dull knives can slip (you&aposre applying more pressure) and cause you to cut yourself.

5. For the Creamiest Filling, Use Your Food Processor

Using a food processor to whirl together the yolks, mayo and other ingredients makes for a super-creamy filling. If you don&apost feel like getting the food processor out or if you prefer a slightly chunkier filling, you can simply mash the ingredients together with a fork.

Pictured Recipe: Buffalo Deviled Eggs

6. Master the Mix-Ins for the Best Flavor and Texture

Mustard and mayo give deviled eggs creaminess and tang. For classic deviled eggs, yellow mustard is the way to go. It has the right acidity and saltiness that adds a special punch. Dijon, or a blend of brown mustard and yellow mustard, also works well. But you don&apost have to go super-traditional and put only mustard, mayo and paprika in your filling. Think of fun mix-ins like anchovies, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, chives, cilantro or Tabasco.

Check out 5 Ways to Make Deviled Eggs Even Better for creative ideas, including Buffalo Deviled Eggs.

7. Try These Tweaks for Healthier Deviled Eggs

Playing with the fillings is also a good way to make deviled eggs healthier. In our Classic Deviled Eggs recipe we swapped out half the full-fat mayo for nonfat Greek yogurt for deviled eggs that are just as creamy as traditional ones but have fewer calories-not to mention more protein and gut-healthy probiotics from the yogurt. Trading regular mayo for low-fat is an easy way to shave off calories, but check the label-low-fat mayos typically have added sugar. And while yolks have many of the vitamins and minerals found in eggs (including vitamin A, vitamin D, choline and antioxidants), they also contain most of the calories and fat in eggs. (One yolk has 5 grams of fat and 55 calories, compared with only 17 calories and no fat in an egg white.) Our recipe for Deviled Eggs with Relish uses nonfat cottage cheese to stand in for some of the yolks-it keeps the filling velvety and rich while reducing some of the fat. For a fun recipe that skips the yolks altogether, try Guacamole-Stuffed Eggs.

8. Don't Let Those Eggs Sit for Too Long!

And don&apost forget these important food-safety tips: Keep deviled eggs refrigerated until you are ready to serve them, and don&apost leave them out longer than two hours. Your guests will probably eat them much faster than that anyway!


The Secrets to Decoding Food Labels for Dairy-Free Living

I follow a simple three to four step process to quickly and efficiently locate and confirm dairy-free products:

Below I’ve included details to help you understand, master, and adapt this process for your needs. But remember, this is just a guide. Only you can decide what foods are safe for you and your family.

Helpful Dietary Claims on Food Labels

Companies use all types of statements to describe their products – some are specifically regulated, but most aren’t. Dietary claims shouldn’t be relied on alone, but they can help you quickly identify contenders for your shopping cart. Here are some labels you might see that pertain to dairy-free living.

Common Food Labels that May Indicate Dairy Free Products

  • Dairy-Free – This should indicate that the product is made without any dairy (milk-based) ingredients.
  • Non-Dairy – This usually means the product is made without any dairy ingredients, but it is possible that the product could still contain dairy ingredients. Read this post for more details: Non-Dairy vs Dairy-Free.
  • Milk-Free – It’s typically equivalent to dairy-free labels, and should mean the product is made without any milk-based (dairy) ingredients.
  • Lactose-Free – Lactose-free just means the product is free of milk sugar, not of all milk-based ingredients. However, some dairy-free products use this label instead of dairy-free. We’re not sure why.
  • Vegan – By definition, vegan products are made without any animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.
  • Plant-Based – This is a trendy new way to label vegan products. However, some brands use the term plant-based more loosely to mean that it is a plant-heavy, not vegan.
  • Kosher Pareve/ Parve – See my guide to Understanding Kosher Certification.

None of the above labels are regulated by the FDA, so they should only be used as initial guidance. Nonetheless, if a product has a false claim on it, you should contact the company, and if needed, contact the FDA. Countless times, I’ve had consumers tell me a “vegan” product or a “dairy-free” product contained dairy. It shouldn’t. Even though these claims aren’t specifically regulated, the FDA requires all food label claims to be truthful. If they are not, then the product should be reported.

Now that you’ve spotted a potential product, it’s time to pick it up and turn over the box, and move onto the next step: look for the food allergen labeling.

Food Allergen Labeling Laws

Otherwise known as the “plain language” labeling law, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) went into effect in 2006. It covers all foods and supplements under the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) oversight, which are intended for sale within the United States.

The FALCPA requires that the Top 8 allergens be declared on food labels using easily recognizable names. They include milk (dairy), eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, shellfish, and fish. Sesame is considered the 9th top allergen, but it hasn’t been added to the FALCPA yet. Under this legislation, companies regulated by the FDA cannot legally “hide” milk or other allergens in their ingredient statements.

What Food Allergen Labeling Should Look Like

The allergen declaration can be done either with a notation in parentheses within the ingredient listing or in a statement immediately following the ingredients. I will use a dairy-based protein powder ingredient statement to demonstrate:

  • Within the ingredients: whey protein concentrate (milk), cocoa powder, stevia leaf extract, soy lecithin.
  • Following the ingredients: whey protein concentrate, cocoa powder, stevia leaf extract, soy lecithin. Contains: Milk, Soy

In the first example, soy doesn’t need to be called out since it is written in recognizable language within the ingredients.

Use “Contains” Statements as a First Line of Defense

The government has made it clear that even a seven-year-old should be able to read and understand food labels, but allergen labeling certainly isn’t foolproof. There are penalties for noncompliance, but the FDA is not reviewing all of the food labels that go out the door. I’ve seen numerous allergen errors and omissions on ingredient statements, particularly with dairy. And it’s up to the company or consumers to catch them.

I’ve also noticed it’s very common to see products with “Contains” statements that do contain dairy, but don’t include it in the statement. For example, a product might have peanuts and whey in the ingredients, but with a statement that simply says “Contains: peanuts.” Allergen labeling is a helpful first line to quickly weed out many products, but you must always read the ingredients to verify before purchasing.

And keep in mind that the FALCPA covers ingredients, not processes. If you are dealing with a severe or sensitive food allergy, and potential traces of an allergen are a concern, then you must contact the company to discuss their processes. Technically, all foods can be at risk for some degree of cross-contamination with other foods at various stages in production and packaging. Only you can decide, after speaking with the company, if the product is safe enough for your needs.

What Foods Don’t Fall Under FALCPA?

Most packaged foods in the grocery store fall under the FDA’s supervision, and are required to adhere to the FALCPA. But the FDA has a few exemptions, and select food and beverages are overseen by other government organizations. This list includes the products that are not required to follow the FALCPA.

  • Highly Refined Oils derived from one of the eight major food allergens and any ingredient derived from such highly refined oil, such as butter esters (FDA)
  • Wines, Distilled Spirits, and Malt Beverages (TTB) – see our Dairy-Free Alcohol Guide
  • Raw Agricultural Commodities, like fresh fruits and vegetables (USDA)
  • Beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and catfish (USDA)
  • Egg products, like egg whites and powdered eggs (USDA)

There are a few more specifics, which you can read on this post: FDA vs USDA.

Even though the TTB and the USDA do not have food allergen labeling requirements, they do recommend it for any packaged products. This is why some meats do have allergy food labels on them, while others do not.

What About Other Countries?

Canada has enacted similar legislation to FALCPA, but their allergen labeling covers the Top 11 food allergens (including milk). Their food labels look quite similar to what you find in the U.S.

The European Community has also adopted regulations on the disclosure of top food allergens for pre-packed foods. On their food labels, ingredients derived from milk must be adequately identified (along with 13 other top food allergy and sensitivity offenders) in all cases, with the following exceptions: whey used for making distillates or ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin for spirit drinks and other alcoholic beverages and lactitol. These ingredients are believed to be very far removed from milk, and are not considered a risk for eliciting a reaction. In the EU, top allergens are usually printed in bold within the ingredient statement.

Caution Against “May Contain” Statements

In a perfect world, all of the ingredients for your favorite cookies would go through a vacuum tube from field through production and into the package. But in the real world, each ingredient and product changes hands many times and goes through an entire chain or production and packaging. Because of this, all food products are at some degree of risk for potential cross contamination.

This is why I loathe “may contain” statements. They are misleading to everyone. They are unregulated, haphazard, and come in all forms. Here are some you might see:

  • May contain …
  • Made in a facility with …
  • Produced on a shared line with …
  • Etc …

To be clear, “may contain” statements are not required nor regulated by the FDA. They do not fall under FALCPA, and there are no advisory guidelines for these notes. Also, “may contain” statements do not refer to the ingredients, only to potential cross-contamination with allergens in the production process (usually trace).

What most people don’t realize is “may contain” statements are very rarely added for the safety of the consumer. They’re most often added to protect the company from liability. There are companies that actually allergy test, but use the labels “just in case.”

On the contrary, there are many companies in shared facilities or even using shared lines who don’t use may contain statements. I bet you didn’t even know that a lot of allergy-friendly companies use shared lines and facilities! These statements tell you nothing about the company’s processes, ingredient sourcing, allergy testing, packaging, etc.

Most people who are not concerned about potential trace cross-contamination with a top allergen simply ignore the “may contain” statements. But if you are concerned about potential cross-contamination, then you MUST contact the company, even if there is no “may contain” statement.

How Does the 2020 FDA Guidance Affect Milk Allergies?

In May 2020, the FDA announced temporary flexibility for label requirements in order to help alleviate supply chain issues. They did not specify an end date. Under this guidance, manufacturers can make minor formulation changes to products without having to updated the ingredient statement, unless the change affects a top allergen, gluten, sulfites, and some other ingredients considered high for sensitivities. Since milk is a top allergen, this guidance has no direct affect on milk allergen labeling.

Some people have pointed to concerns about companies not using ‘may contain’ statements. But as mentioned, these have always been voluntary, and have never been suggested or regulated by the FDA.

Quick Guide for Dairy Ingredients

Now that we’ve covered the first line defenses, it’s time to move on to the second line: reading the ingredients. It’s important to know what’s in your food, and to be able to spot dairy if the allergen labeling is incorrect. The FALCPA has been in place for nearly 15 years, but I still see errors, discrepancies, and confusing food labels. Which is why I keep our Dairy Ingredient List updated. It has a quick reference guide, explanation on questionable ingredients, and even “surprisingly dairy-free ingredients” for you to enjoy.

Contact the Manufacturer for Cross Contamination Concerns

If you are dealing with a very severe or highly sensitive food concern, then you must contact the manufacturer for more information. It’s essential to ask about their ingredient sourcing and production processes – including cleaning protocols between batches, allergen testing, and packaging.

By law, all manufacturers must include contact information on their packaging. Most brands can also be reached through their website or Facebook page.

And remember that food manufacturing isn’t a vacuum. What matters most is what they do to make sure the product is safe for your needs. Only you can make this decision.


Cracking the Date Code on Egg Cartons

To determine freshness, a pack-date calendar (or Julian Date calendar) can be used like the one below. This three-digit code indicates the date of packaging, starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. These numbers represent the consecutive days of the year. For example a egg carton with a packaging date of 032, means the eggs were packed on February 1st. You can store fresh shell egs in their cartons in the the refrigerator for four to five weeks beyond this date.

Source: United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Plants not under USDA inspection are governed by the state laws where the eggs are packed and/or sold. Most states require a pack date. For more information about state egg laws, contact your state's Department of Agriculture.

How long can I keep eggs that I purchased from the grocery store?

Always purchase eggs before the "Sell-By" or "EXP'" date on the carton. After the eggs reach home, refrigerate the eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The 'sell-by' date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use." Use of either a "Sell-By" or "Expiration" (EXP) date is not federally required, but may be state required, as defined by the egg laws in the state where the eggs are marketed. Some state egg laws do not allow the use of a "sell-by" date.

Is an egg that floats still fresh?

An egg can float in water when its air cell has enlarged sufficiently to keep it buoyant. This means the egg is old, but it may be perfectly safe to use. Crack the egg into a bowl and examine it for an off-odor or unusual appearance before deciding to use or discard it. A spoiled egg will have an unpleasant odor when you break open the shell, either when raw or cooked.

How do I cook eggs safely?

Proper cooking as well as proper storage is important for egg safety. Cook eggs thoroughly so both yolks and whites are firm, not runny. Casseroles and dishes containing eggs should be cooked to 160° F as measured by a food thermometer. Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs. Once eggs are hard-cooked, they should be refrigerated (in their shells) within 2 hours of cooking and used within a week. Refrigerate them in a clean container, not their original egg carton.

A Carton of Eggs - A True Baker's Dozen, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Food Product Dating, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)/Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)

Shell Eggs from Farm to Table, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)/Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)

This article has been peer-reviewed. It was orginally written by Alice Hennman and Joyce Jensen. Reviewed and updated in 2020.