What do the labels on our food actually mean?
NUTRITION labelling on packaged and processed foods is designed to help us make healthy food choices. But when it comes to primary produce, things may not be so clear.
The wide range of types and cuts of meat, along with a myriad of descriptive terms used on fresh packaging, means that it's not always clear which option is better nutritionally.
So if the terms "premium", "3 star" and "MSA approved" mean nothing to you, here are all the terms you need to know when it comes to the quality and nutritional profile of our meat.
The terms used on food packaging are regulated by the Food Standards Code. Premium is not one of these terms.
This means manufacturers can freely describe their products as "premium", based on their own definition of the word. This may have little to do with the nutritional quality of the meat, but rather what the manufacturer sees as its preferred or "better" cut.
This term is often seen on the labels of supermarket packets of meat and refers to Meat Standards Australia - an Australian grading system that classifies the meat according to a range of variables including colour, acidity, and fat marbling, as well as production variables.
Ranging from 3-5 stars, MSA grade meat is not necessarily linked to the nutritional profile of the meat, rather how it was produced.
Commonly seen on Coles meat, RSPCA-approved produce adheres to a range of guidelines that ensure producers have followed specific guidelines for the humane treatment of animals. This criteria has nothing to do with the nutritional profile of the produce.
The term "organic" does not currently have a legal requirement in Australia, so the definitions of organic can differ depending on the body that has certified the product.
Generally speaking, organic produce is grown and produced using no chemicals or pesticides. All aspects of the supply chain involved in the production of the product, from farm to store shelf, are made with ecological, economic and social sustainability in mind.
Nutritionally, there may be some positive differences including different fatty acid profiles of organic produce due to more natural feeding regimes, and a higher micronutrient content.
In Australia, specifically "Australian Certified Organic" has one of the most tightly regulated accreditation standards, but you will pay significantly more for Certified Organic meat and chicken.
This is another term used by manufacturers that does not necessarily have set criteria to define it. Heart Smart meat will generally have lower levels of fat than regular cuts of meat. For example, regular chops have visibly much more fat than extra trim cutlets.
A better indicator of the leanness of the meat is that classified with a Star Rating System, or meat described as 'lean' or 'extra lean, which will also feature a nutritional panel so you can actually see how much fat is in the cut of meat itself.
LEAN/EXTRA LEAN/TRIM/STAR RATINGS
As the Star Rating System still remains voluntary, it is unusual to see it on fresh produce. Generally speaking, the higher the number of stars, the better the product nutritionally.
In the case of meat, this will mean a lower fat content. More common are the descriptions of lean or extra lean, or trim or extra trim.
A "lean" or "trim" cut will contain 10g of fat per 100g, compared to an extra trim product which will contain 5g of fat per 100g or less, or more specifically 3g of saturated fat per 100g, although again these specific descriptions may differ slightly between manufacturers.
Nutritionally, grass-fed livestock is the flavour of the month and does have a slightly better fatty acid profile, thanks to a more natural diet.
Grass-fed livestock are unlikely to be roaming in huge paddocks, but rather farmed like any other livestock with a different diet.
The majority of livestock in Australia is fed a diet of both grain and grass. Certified Pasture Fed beef is available from specialty outlets, although it comes with a hefty price tag.
A popular marketing tool, the first thing to know is that Australia poultry has been hormone free for more than 40 years.
On the other hand, HGPs (hormonal growth promotants) are used with roughly 40 per cent of the beef produced in Australia, albeit at levels considered safe by regulatory authorities. Regardless of HGPs being considered safe, the shift of major supermarkets to promote hormone free varieties suggest that consumers do prefer their beef hormone free.
This is another term that is not regulated in Australia and can have many definitions, even between different types of meat and chicken. In the same way that grass-fed may not mean luscious farms with open paddocks, free range may only mean the animals have access to space, rather than an assurance that they use it.
With a number of different accreditation bodies for free range, it is best to do some extra research so you know exactly what type of free range you are buying for which animal.
Nutritionally, what the animal is fed will have the most significant influence over its nutritional profile, not how much space it has to roam.