My usual grocery store has been disappointing me lately. First it stopped carrying Old Spice. I am old enough that my aftershave’s scent should reflect my creeping geriatric status. Then they dispensed with Jewish rye bread. There are a few items where I insist that quality top budgetary concerns and this was among those few. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread analogy doesn’t work very well here, so I’ll just say I found the Jewish rye right proper. Then the grocery store committed its greatest sin of omission by no longer carrying Peter Pan peanut butter. With the brand’s texture, smoothness, and faint saltiness, I will always be dissatisfied with any other option.
But I needed some PB for the week, so with resignation and despondency, I grabbed some Jif. When I got home, I noticed the jar had one of those annoying non-GMO labels. Toward the end of the ingredient list were soybeans, which is one of nine foods that may be sold in the U.S. after genetic modification. So it’s possible that Jif’s parent company, J.M. Smucker, made a conscious decision to bypass genetically modified soybeans for traditional ones. More likely, however, is that Jif’s ingredients have been the same for the past 30 years and the company chose to add the label to take advantage of consumers’ unjustified fears.
There are other labels on jars, cans, and wrappers that likewise are factually correct, but may be disingenuous, misleading, or instilling unnecessary worry. For instance, you may see ones proclaiming, “No added hormones.” This is relevant on beef, but no chicken or pork can be sold if the animal received hormones, so such labels are redundant and playing on consumers’ naiveté.
Whereas the previous label occasionally has legitimate uses, an “antibiotic-free” proclamation on meat is always superfluous. While farmers may give their livestock antibiotics, a legally-mandated withdrawal period ensures the animals have no antibiotic residue at the time of slaughter.
The most ubiquitous, ostentatiously trumpeted label is “organic.” This designation means more than “overpriced.” Many organic consumers think the label means pesticide-free, but it really means the pesticides may not be synthetic. Even then, there are dozens of exceptions.
Most importantly, whether the pesticide is natural or manmade has no bearing on its safety, toxicity, or effectiveness. And whether they are organic or synthetic, added pesticides constitute little of what we end up consuming. According to farmer and agriculture blogger Michelle Miller, more than 99 percent of the pesticides on our foods occur naturally within the plant.
Going back to animals, be wary of the “cage-free” label. This is legitimate if applied to eggs, but some unscrupulous food companies decided to slap this label on their poultry meat, piggybacking on the popularity of the description on egg cartons. But again, we are dealing with a redundancy because chickens raised for meat are not caged. They may, however, be confined to a warehouse in crowded, unsafe, unsanitary conditions, so being cage-free is not necessarily synonymous with animal welfare.
Staying in the meat section, we now examine “rBST-free” claims. Bovine somatotropin is a hormone cows produce naturally, while recombinant bovine somatotropin is a synthetic version of this. When given to cows, rBST gives them a little more of a hormone they already have and helps them produce more milk. Milk from a cow that has been treated with rBST has no nutritional difference from milk that comes from a cow not treated. As to the effect on the animals, a 2014 meta-analysis published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association showed no significant increase in mastitis or other harms.
“Gluten-free,” as we’ve covered on this blog before, is a pointless distinction for anyone who doesn’t have celiac or a similar condition. Except for those in these categories, going gluten-free is to follow a meaningless dietary fad, and foods so labeled are no more healthy or nutritious than the gluten-filled options. In recent years, the gluten-free label has been added to many foods that have always had this distinction, only now it is supposed to mean something.
Although ethically dubious, the previous examples are all at least true. That is not the case when one sees a “chemical free” label. All matter contains chemicals, indeed that’s what chemistry is, the study of matter. Those who use the label hope those reading it will associate the word “chemical” with Chernobyl, World War I mustard gas, and train wreck spillage.
I try to avoid supporting companies that use the labels we’ve examined. The labels not only prey on unnecessary fears, they carry an implied smearing of hardworking farmers and food scientists. I just hope I never face the dilemma of having to decide what to do if I see a non-GMO label on Peter Pan.