Eggs, milk, meat, and bread. These are all common staples found in most refrigerators. But, is an egg just an egg? Is there more to meat than meets the eye, and does a $10 loaf of bread rise above the competition?
Stocking your pantry with the basics has never been more complicated and confusing. It’s not enough to just simply read a label to understand what you’re about to place in your grocery cart.
Today, healthy jargon is being used as a tool to market products that fetch higher prices at the checkout.
While some products are justifiably created using special methods that cost more to the manufacturer, others do nothing more than simply hide behind a holistic vocabulary in order to milk your bank account.
We closely examined the most basic items in your refrigerator: eggs, milk, meat, and bread, to better understand food industry vernacular and how it impacts your health and your wallet.
There’s Some Egg-Splaining to Do
Let’s begin at the beginning. Eggs – a valuable source of nutrients and highly versatile. An egg packs 13 essential vitamins and minerals and six grams of protein. You can scramble, fry, boil and bake them.
But, before you break into one, you have an important choice to make. Go to any supermarket and you will find no less than four alternative types of eggs to your inexpensive factory farm variety, such as cage-free, free-range, pasture raised, and certified organic, just to name a few.
While some of these are feel-good words that imply a healthier and more humanely treated product, they come with a hefty price tag.
Consumer Reports looked into a comparison of certain grocery chains and how they priced organic versus non-organic eggs with highest price peaking above $6 for a dozen organic eggs.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the average price for a dozen white “cage-free” eggs is $2.99, while the price of a dozen large white eggs is $1.29.
Add these numbers up over the course of a year at an average consumption of two dozen eggs per person per month, and a family of four can expect to spend upwards of hundreds of dollars compared to just a fraction of that cost.
This math begs the question: are you buying a product that is truly superior or is the cost of your conscience making you spend unnecessarily?
It begins with understanding the semantics of selling. The following glossary explains the difference, if any, between the most commonly used terms in egg marketing.
Buzz Words: What’s Really the Difference?
This term does, in fact, mean hens are uncaged and free to walk, nest and engage in other natural behaviors. It does not, however, mean that hens have outdoor access nor are they immune from beak-cutting and starvation-based forced molting.
Beak-cutting is a method used on predominantly egg-laying chickens as they have been known to engage in pecking and cannibalism when kept in close quarters.
Starvation-based forced molting is a method that involves withdrawing food and water for one to two weeks after the first egg-laying phase to artificially force rejuvenation to increase egg production, egg quality, and profitability of flocks in their second or subsequent laying phases.
Free-Range, Free-Roaming, Pasture-Raised & Certified Organic:
Just as it sounds, these eggs are very similar to “Cage-Free” with the exception that egg-laying chickens are allowed to go outside. They are still subjected to beak-cutting and forced molting.
Now that we understand what these terms mean, it’s time to justify spending our hard earned dollars.
It’s clear that, according to the Humane Society, there is no difference between Free-Range, Free-Roaming, Pasture-Raised and Certified Organic eggs. They all engage in the same production methods to render eggs.
For animal rights-conscious consumers, the difference between Cage-Free and the latter terms may be important.
But, unless you have a couple of your own egg-laying chickens in your backyard, chances are your eggs are going to come from a source that prizes quantity as a means to stay in business.
It Tastes Like an Egg
If the quality of the product is your driving decision-making factor at the checkout, side-by-side taste tests have been done rendering thought-provoking outcomes.
J. Kenji López-Alt, a food scientist based in San Francisco, CA, put his friend’s chickens’ freshly laid eggs in a head-to-head taste test with normal, run of the mill eggs.
While the results were varying, the latter and cheaper egg still did their job when it came to flavor and nutritional value. Other qualities, such as color and substance of non-factory produced eggs weren’t terribly significant, according to Lopez-Alt’s findings.
Lopez-Alt also came to another fascinating conclusion on the psychology of eating his varied egg selection.
As many egg-eating people have noticed, there is color variation in eggs. Often, the more holistically raised the egg, the richer the color.
Lopez-Alt’s taste testers were given two separate batches of several egg types – one batch which was dyed green. Those who tasted a difference within the egg selection during the first round, picked different eggs as their preferred choice during the second, green round.
These findings point to the fact that visually appealing eggs contribute to the idea that better-looking eggs labeled organic, cage-free, etc., taste better, when in fact, they do not.
Based on Lopez-Alt’s study, eggs marketed with the right terminology makes shoppers think expensive eggs taste better and are therefore worth the extra cost.
Milk: Finding a Clear Winner
But, eggs are one excellent example of how to turn the simplest of foods into a complicated and contemplative activity. Not far from the egg display is another cornerstone of a nutritious and balanced diet: milk.
No longer are your main choices Skim, 2%, or Whole. Milk has taken on a life of its own as producers try to outdo their competitors by assuring consumers that what they’re pouring into their glass is the healthiest choice.
The United States is one of the world’s top producers and consumers of milk with the last 30 years showing production increases by 50%.
But, with the emergence of dietary restrictions, milk is now varied to fit just about all lifestyles and health requirements. The more specialized the milk, the more expensive.
The most commonly consumed milk comes from cows, which is what we’ll focus on, however, humans across the globe drink milk from alternative sources including goats, sheep, buffaloes, and camels, with goat and sheep milk becoming more common in the United States and at a slightly higher price point.
A Magical Elixir?
Most milk undergoes basic treatment to ensure it’s fit to be consumed. These common steps from udder to glass include pasteurization, homogenization, and fortification.
But, are you getting the value-added benefits you’re paying for?
Take Omega-3 and DHA-enriched milk for instance. Omega-3 and DHA are fatty acids found in fish that help with the development of eye and nerve tissue. An excellent source of nutrition for babies and adults, these fatty acids are often taken as a daily dietary supplement.
According to ConsumerLab.com, milk enriched with DHA costs an average of 50 cents more per half a gallon than regular milk.
Drinking milk with DHA added, costs twice as much as taking the DHA supplement on its own. Based on this research, paying extra for a fancy carton of DHA milk is unnecessary.
The following type of milk has been a point of contention for years, and that is hormone-free dairy products. When reaching for that gallon of milk at the supermarket, you’ve probably come across something that reads, rBST-Free milk.
rBST stands for “recombinant bovine somatotropin.” This is an artificial growth hormone commonly used by dairy producers to increase milk production.
First developed by the biotechnology company, Genentech, rBST has shown to have an adverse effect on cows and possibly humans, although the latter with inconclusive evidence and many protestations by one of the hormone’s current manufacturers, Monsanto.
In cows, studies on rBST show the animals with an increase in mastitis or blocked milk ducts, infertility, and lameness. In humans, the hormone may show an influence in the growth of tumors and may be linked to the development of prostate, colorectal, breast and other cancers.
While data regarding damage to humans remains elusive, there is one thing you can take to the bank and that is milk labeled rBST-Free is actually cheaper than organic milk which doesn’t allow the use of artificial hormones.
However, the debate is whether rBST-Free labeled milk is accurate. Milk producers and growth hormone manufacturers have fought to ban or restrict non-rBGH labels as they believe there is no difference in milk from cows treated with the hormone and those that are not, and many, including some state representatives, contend that these claims of non-rBGH use are impossible to verify.
While that debate rages on, it’s more of a personal preference as to whether the wording on the labels gives you peace of mind. As mentioned earlier, milk labeled as growth hormone-free is not that expensive, however, organic still tops the charts when it comes to making a dent in your wallet.
First, understand what organic milk is. It comes from cows that are allowed to graze, are fed organically certified material, not treated with most drugs (including growth hormone), and treated in a humane manner.
For all that TLC, you’re taking the cost of a conventional $3 gallon of milk and jacking the price up to twice as much.
What about nutrition? All milk has the same trifecta of major vitamins like A, D, and K, as well as calcium and potassium. However, micro-nutrients that can only come from pasture grazing will be lacking in non-organic milk production.
They Taste ‘Udderly’ the Same
And, does it taste different? Several years ago, Huffington Post conducted a blind taste test to see what people thought of regular versus organic milk.
The results were almost squarely down the middle with half the participants feeling one was better than the other. So, when choosing to spend that extra money on your next grocery trip, the value lies in what you can’t see or taste.
Finally, raw milk has been a bone of contention in several states as it is not pasteurized. Through pasteurization, any bacteria are killed by heating.
Such bacteria include Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which can cause serious illness and even death in people with suppressed immune systems.
Advocates for raw milk claim through pasteurization, nutrients in the milk are lost, however, health experts disagree and believe anything lost by pasteurizing milk is insignificant and not worth the risk of getting sick.
There are some ways people can get their hands on raw milk, either in some supermarkets or directly through dairy farmers. The cost upwards of $6-$8 per gallon.
More to Meat Than Meets the Eye
Down the road from the dairy farm, another main source of America’s nutrition is ‘moo-ving’ into a costly territory. Beef and other meat prices fluctuate all year long.
While American’s may not be sitting down to steak and potatoes for dinner every night, there are certain times of year that are better or worse for buying a red slab of protein.
There is something you may have noticed the last time you went to see your butcher. There are stickers differentiating the quality of the meat. They are USDA Prime, USDA Choice, and USDA Select.
USDA Prime: Produced from young, well-fed cattle. Contains marbling and mostly sold in restaurants and hotels.
USDA Choice: High quality with less marbling than Prime. Usually tender, juicy, and flavorful. Less tender cuts used in longer cooking methods.
USDA Select: Uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. Fairly tender but may lack in juiciness and flavor.
And, depending on how that meat is raised, determines just how high a price you’ll pay per pound.
Like milk, cattle raised for its meat comes in many different forms. A couple of commonly used terms include grass-fed and organic. Believe it or not, there is a difference, yet the two terms can also overlap.
Grass-fed beef basically means cattle were allowed to graze for their own fresh food.
Organic beef means cows cannot be confined to overcrowded conditions or kept in unsanitary spaces.
They also cannot be directly or indirectly exposed to artificial pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, GMOs, or other synthetic contaminants.
Also, the more confined the beef, the higher the stress levels which in turn affect the meat quality. Stress raises glycogen and lactic acid levels that result in a loss of tenderness and flavor of the meat.
So, the average cost of organic pasture grazed or grass-fed beef is about $6.50 to $6.75 per pound. For a middle of the road USDA Choice, a pound of meat can be as low as $2.80 per pound.
Breaking Bread Without Breaking the Bank
Rounding out your meal is a global staple that has sustained civilized life for eons. We’re talking about bread. White, wheat, rye, sourdough, whole grain…the choices are endless, but there are exceptions that will determine how much you spend on your next loaf.
At its basic level, bread consists of flour, water, salt, and yeast. But, it doesn’t have to stop there.
Several years ago, it was reported that Whole Foods introduced what was believed to be the most expensive loaf of bread sold in a mainstream supermarket at a whopping $35: 100% Organic Sprouted Grain Kalamata Caciocavallo Pain de Campagne with White Truffle Oil.
Sure, it’s gilded with fancy ingredients that go beyond a diner’s expectations, but it’s becoming less unusual to pay double digits for a high-end loaf.
It’s but one example of a high-quality bread given very special treatment and it includes the commonly used word that immediately jacks up the price, ‘organic.’
Organic isn’t the only type of bread that fetches more dough. Non-GMO and gluten-free varieties can cost as much as $10 or more depending on the product and brand.
Rising to the Occasion
To better understand how or if organic bread rises to the occasion, Stanford University conducted research that debunks the theory that organic is better.
As with other organically raised foods, organic wheat is grown without pesticides. Other benefits include the development of chemical defenses against environmental hazards as well as antioxidants.
However, Stanford focused on whether these differences had an impact on the people eating it.
While, the organic method might be better for the environment, after analyzing their data, researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional products.
In other words, according to Stanford’s study, organic is not necessarily worth the extra money.
A bigger concern, however, is bread itself. A major part of the American diet, cheap bread contains other ingredients that are unhealthy.
Not only does bread consist of grains that are difficult to digest, it contains cheaper products that include dough conditioners, additives, preservatives, GMOs, added sugar and artificial flavor and color.
Creating a more wholesome and healthy loaf means eliminating those products thereby creating a more expensive product. So, in this particular case, it might be worth buying a fresher, less treated product, organic or not.
As for gluten-free bread, these loaves eliminate wheat, rye, and barley thereby removing proteins that are difficult to digest for many people.
The problem, according to some experts, is that they contain other ingredients that are also not good for you, most commonly starches that include cornstarch, rice flour, tapioca starch and potato flour.
William Davis, MD is the author of “Wheat Belly Total Health” and says these ingredients have the highest glycemic indexes of all foods.
Based on these findings, a gluten-free bread without added starches or a freshly baked loaf is worth the extra cash.
Finding a Balance Between Both Sides of the Aisle
Like politics, shoppers weigh the pros and cons of placing certain products in their carts every time they go to the market. Their carefully selected choices will create either a deficit or surplus in their coffers.
But, these choices are more complicated than ever and making the right choice begins with speaking the same language as retailers. We’ve discovered that organic, GMO-free, cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, etc. etc., are all terms that mean something different depending on the item it’s applied to.
Shoppers also need to understand themselves before making their grocery list. Are they buying with their conscience or their pocket book? What dictates the grade of food you consume?
If it’s animal welfare, the choice is more clear, go with your heart. If it’s health, taste or cost, you may need to do some shopping around for your best fit.