The sluggish economic rebound hasn't stopped more people from ditching dirty factory-farmed meat for organic and "natural" alternatives, according to a new report from the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute.
Based on surveys of 1,340 people, the annual "Power of Meat" report found that 24 percent of the respondents reported purchasing "natural" or organic meat, versus 20 percent in last year's survey. And that increase follows a seven-year upward trend that has remained strong even during the height of the recession, when 17 percent said they bought natural or organic meat.
Read More: 7 Things You Need to Start Buying Organic
Unfortunately, the report didn't differentiate between organic meat, which must meet the standards of certification, and meat labeled "natural," an essentially meaningless term. With regard to meat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined "natural" to mean "a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed." But natural meat often comes from animals treated with antibiotics or hormones, or animals that ate genetically modified grains like corn and soy.
And there's no doubt that, given the popularity of the "natural" label, more meat producers will slap it on packages hoping you'll pay a little extra for a product that in fact has no added value. To truly get your money's worth, look for USDA-certified organic meat, or seek out a local producer who can explain how the animals were raised without antibiotics or hormones and what their animals ate. Ideally, those producers will have fed their animals only grass or let their chickens and pigs graze on grass, bugs, and organic grain.
In addition to "natural," here are a few other labels to avoid on meat packages:
• No added growth hormones.
The USDA doesn't permit farmers to feed hormones to poultry or pork, so if you see it on chicken, turkey, or pork labels, it's meaningless, and actually illegal unless accompanied by the disclaimer "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones." Producers of those meats use antibiotics instead, which speed growth in the same way as hormones.
Read More: Our Guide to Buying Grass-Fed Beef
It's actually illegal to use this label on packages, according to the USDA. Manufacturers often skirt the issue by using phrases like "raised without antibiotics" or "no antibiotics administered." Furthermore, some meat producers use those phrases while dousing animals with antimicrobials, drugs that work identically to antibiotics but are defined differently by the Food and Drug Administration.
• "Enhanced" or "self-basting."
You'll often see this on chicken or turkey, and it means that the bird has been injected with a solution of water and phosphates, chemicals suspected of causing chronic kidney disease, weak bones, and premature aging. The solutions are added in part to keep birds moist during cooking, but they're also there to mask the odor of chlorine; to kill the bacteria living in nearly all factory-farmed birds, meat producers rinse birds in extremely strong solutions of chlorine and water.