Today, buying meat at the store requires you to read the novel's-worth of information printed on the package. Trying to figure out what dish I want to cook is hard, let alone finding the right meat for the job. While some of the labels can be helpful, some seemingly-important labels are useless or, in some cases, counter-intuitive.
No Added Hormones or Steroids
Pork and poultry products tend to claim "*No added hormones or steroids." Notice the asterisk with that label? Take a closer look on any package with that label and you'll find an explanation stating that federal regulations prohibit added hormones and steroids. That means every pork and poultry product you consume is free of additional hormones and steroids, regardless if it was labeled or not.
Before we move on, let's discuss the use of the term "added." These animals, just like us, have natural hormones. That's basic biology. Your fruits and vegetables have hormones, too. All food you eat will have some level of hormones in them, but this clarifies that no additional hormones or steriods were given to the animals while they were raised.
Gluten is a protein found in grains, not meat. Unless you're buying a value-added product that may be breaded or have additional ingredients, all meat is gluten-free. This label is stating the obvious.
This claim also tends to have a definition in the fine print on the label. For any meat to be labeled "natural," it must contain no artificial ingredients, added colors, and must have been minimally processed. Minimally processed means that the product wasn't changed.
Meat is a very basic product. Again, unless you're buying a value-added product like frozen chicken nuggets, your meat is natural.
Free Range/Cage Free
While a free range or cage-free label means something on a carton of eggs, it doesn't mean anything on a package of chicken breasts. Broilers, or chickens raised for meat, are all cage-free. The only types of chickens that may be housed in cages are egg-laying hens, and not all of those are housed the same. Free range simply means that the chickens have some form of access to the outdoors. The chicken may never choose to go outside in its entire lifetime, but it has the option to.
Non-GMO Project Verified/Contains No GMOs
In the United States, the only meat that is commercially available that is genetically modified is salmon, which is a fairly new product that was only recently approved for sale. All other meat is not genetically modified at this point in time.
Meat that is Non-GMO Project Verified does hold some meaning, however. Any meat with this label notes that the meat was never fed with GMO ingredients. Meat with or without this label is still not genetically modified in any way. However, not every company can use this label. The Non-GMO Project is a third-party verification that requires companies to pay for the label. Just because a meat does not have a Non-GMO Project label doesn’t mean that it was raised on GMO ingredients. The USDA currently does not approve any labels of this sort that are not provided by a third-party.
Antibiotics have been a hot topic for quite some time now and that isn't going away. Farmers and food producers today are trying to find ways to reduce the use of antibiotics in production. However, you will never eat any meat that has antibiotics in it. If an animal has been given antibiotics, there is a withdrawal period associated with it. That animal cannot go to butcher until a certain amount of time has passed to ensure that those antibiotics are out of their bloodstream.
Some chicken packages boast that their chickens are fed a vegetarian diet. Let's stop and think about that logic. Chickens are birds. Think of what other birds you know (eagles, owls, penguins, the list goes on). What do those birds eat? Snakes? Mice? Fish? So why would a chicken be any different? Chickens enjoy bugs and meat. While a vegetarian diet is possible just like it is with us, chickens are omnivores and naturally eat meat.
Eating meat today can be confusing. Armed with this information, you'll be able to easily navigate the meat counter and come home with a cut you're happy to eat.