Confused with claims such as natural, hormone-free, antibiotic-free? You’re not the only one. The food industry has been increasingly using such claims as a marketing strategy to a health & animal-welfare concerned audience. Let’s look into the quality of the standards surrounding the usage of these claims established by The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).  Then there’s the big question – am I making a healthier choice by choosing a product with these claims?

What Makes Something Natural?
In the short – nothing. This is a very misleading claim. The CFIA states that a product can have a “Natural” claim as long as it doesn’t have added colours, flavours, or synthetic ingredients. They also state the product should not be ‘significantly changed’ … but how can we define this? This loose language allowed food manufactures to slap this claim on many of their processed products that don’t really have much nutrition benefit. One of my favourite examples – ‘natural sugars’. While some people consider brown sugar, honey or agave syrup to be more natural, as they are minimally processed –  they are still sugars. They are concentrated sources of calories with very few other nutrients. You likely won’t get much other nutrient benefit from more ‘natural sugars’, considering the small amount that is typically consumed at one time.

Growth Hormones
I’ve taken notice to fast food burger places such as A&W and South St. Burger using claims such as ‘no growth hormones’ as a marketing technique. I have mixed feeling on this. They are using this fear technique to sell more burgers, rather than educating a skeptical customer. Perhaps this is where I come in, to provide that education.

Why are growth hormones used?

  • Growth Hormones naturally occur in animals and humans to promote growth and development.
  • Natural and synthetic growth hormones are given to animals to promote the growth of lean muscle, which has the benefit of increasing production, lowering cost. This also has environmental benefits, as more meat is being produced on less land.
  • In Canada, only cows used for beef are given growth hormones. Growth hormones are not used in dairy cows, pork, chicken, turkey or other meats. In the US, growth hormones are used in meat production and in dairy cattle. The use of growth hormones in food production is banned in the European Union.

Should we be concerned?

  • There are concerns that adding natural and man-made hormones to the food supply may increase cancer risk, but this has never been studied. The few research studies that have been done on foods from animals treated with growth hormones do not show negative effects on human health
  • However, we do not know that long term effects of added growth hormones on human health. To be cautious, lower exposure whenever possible. If you’re in Canada, choose organic beef (organic beef has no added growth hormones) or eat beef less often. You don’t have to worry about limiting milk, poultry or other meats in Canada as they won’t have added growth hormones.
  • Don’t be fooled by beef labelled as “hormone-free”. Animals naturally produce hormones, so no meat can be hormone-free

Antibiotic Claims
Antibiotics are used more often than growth hormones in our food supply. They may be used in poultry, pork and fish that are being raised for food and also sprayed on fruit and given to honey bees. The purpose of using antibiotics is to treat illness in animals and prevent disease. They work by reducing growth or killing bacteria harmful to the health of animals and humans. This results in food products that are disease-free.

A closer look at the claim…

  • In order to display the claim “raised without the use of antibiotics” the animal or fish must not have received antibiotics from birth to harvest. In addition, no antibiotics can be administered to the mother of the animal in question in any manner which would result in antibiotic residue in the animal. “Raised without the use of antibiotics” clearly states that no antibiotics were administered to the animals and is easily and clearly understood by consumers.
  • A claim like “fed no antibiotics” may imply that the animal was raised without the use of antibiotics, when, in fact, the animal may have received antibiotics through injection or spraying. To avoid misleading information, if such a claim is applied, it should meet the criteria for “raised without the use of antibiotics”.

Should we be concerned?

  • For animal products, if a cow is treated with antibiotics because of an infection, the milk they produce while being treated is not sold.  Her milk is properly disposed of for a mandatory length of time, to allow for the medication to get out of her system. When hens are given antibotics, the eggs they lay are thrown away.
  • Overuse of antibiotics both in humans and animals to treat or prevent infections has caused concern about antibiotic resistance in humans. As bacteria become resistant, it will become more difficult to prevent and treat infections. The Canadian government is taking an active role to stay up to date on the scientific evidence on antibiotic resistance.
  • Thoroughly wash all vegetables and fruit for thirty seconds under running tap water to minimize the intake of antibiotics.

Written by Nicole Osinga, RD, MAN, BASc

I'm a Registered Dietitian who works with clients in the Durham Region! I use evidence-based recommendations to help you achieve your nutrition goals. I have many hearty and delicious recipes to share! My office is in Courtice, ON. I regularly work with clients from Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax, Pickering, Newcastle, Bowmanville and Courtice.

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