Looking Beyond the Label

So many people are aware of how imperative it is to eat healthy, but often they walk into the market and are inundated with different labels that make choosing the best foods a quite confusing experience. organic? natural? biodynamic? local? fair-trade? non-GMO?? let’s break down what these things really mean and what’s essential to keep in mind as you’re perusing the aisles with the intention of making the best choices for your health, the environment, and your personal value system.
  • ORGANIC refers to the way that foods are grown and processed. in order for a food to receive a “Certified Organic” label, the food must be grown through a farming system that is able to maintain the soil without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically engineered ingredients. organic foods are minimally processed and water and air quality is protected, food tastes richer and more flavorful, and the impact of production on the environment is minimal. while it is always better to buy organic, be aware that the USDA has developed a system of labeling that differentiates between different levels of organic food. only some products are labeled “100% organic.” if the label only reads “Organic” or “USDA Organic,” then that only ensures that 95% of the product is organic. (USDA will only use their logo if the product is at least 95%). If a product has at least 70% organic ingredients, it can be labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients.”
  • Foods labeled NATURAL does NOT mean that they are in line with USDA organic standards. essentially “natural” is a marketing term, limited to meat and poultry items, and there is no real regulation system associated with it.  it is limited for use on meat and poultry products. while these are all allowed to be printed on labels, don’t confuse them with “organic.” Foods labeled natural may not contain any artificial flavorings, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, and they must be only “minimally processed,” which the USDA defines as a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. Yet while the USDA can hold accountable a company making this claim, no verification system is in place.
  • LOCAL food is becoming increasingly popular as more and more people are concerned with going green. Eating foods produced close to you is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and support your local economy. Additionally the flavor and energy in local foods is heightened, which makes it more nutrient-dense. Put simply, the food has less travel time and less of an opportunity to go through processes that change its composition and expose it to toxins. Of course, eating local means forgoing tropical fruits and veggies and ones that are not in season in your area.
  • Common animal products in health food stores are often labeled “CAGE-FREE,” “NO HORMONES ADMINISTERED,” “RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS,” “FREE RANGE,” are all kind of obvious but it is important to understand that none of these, like the “natural” label, are regulated. “Cage-free” implies that hens are uncaged, but this does not mean that they can go outdoors. ” Meat products can be labeled “Raised Without Antibiotics,” but again, there is no formal certification for this, and there is no approved label that reads “Antibiotic Free.” Thus, I don’t think we can be sure there are no antibiotics in any meat product. Additionally, “No Hormones Administered” is permitted on labels, (the USDA bans hormone use on pigs and poultry), but it DOES  allow hormone injections in beef. And…once again, this is another claim that the farm can make without actually giving proof. “Free Range” and “Free Roaming” implies that birds and animals are able to roam outdoors, but this is unregulated as well.
  • CERTIFIED HUMANE RAISED AND HANDLED implies that animals raised for food products (including dairy) are treated in a humane way and not injected with hormones and antibiotics. Although this is not regulated by the USDA, it IS regulated by something called Humane Farm Animal Care. There are several environmental and slaugthering standards that must be upheld, and in order for a farm to be certified, they have to be inspected.
  • BIODYNAMIC is a method of organic farming that was developed by Rudolph Steiner (creator of Waldorf Schools). Its philosophy views the farm as a living entity. Animals and plants naturally sustain the farm themselves by feeding off the land and creating natural, organic compost. It is a gentle process and even the soil is regarded as a living organism (as it should be!). Biodynamic wine grapes are becoming more common, and they have been found to contain higher nutrient counts than conventionally grown or even organic grapes. The biodynamic method is not mainstream at all – partially due to the fact that it is not yet suited for mainstream mass production- and also because it is (sadly) a little “out there” for people who don’t look at the energy and love that our food products are made with as being important.
  • Non-GMO is a label popping up more and more these days and GMOs are the topic of a heated debate surrounding food safety and public health. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. All plants and animals are made of cells, which scientists use to alter the genetic state of their products in order to maximize economic benefit. They do this through making it possible for foods to do things like produce their own pesticides- a big money saver since farmers don’t have to spray their crops. Of course, you can imagine how toxic this makes the product, and how many unnatural side effects occur in GM products that we don’t even know about yet. At this point, foods can be labeled as non-GMO, but this is unregulated (are you sensing the pattern??). However, almost more importantly, foods that contain GMOs are all around us, and there is currently no system in place that requires that fact to appear on labels. I suppose it could be assumed that most packaged “food” (if you want to call it that) contains GMOs unless stated otherwise, but this is not exactly effective in my opinion in informing the public of what they are actually purchasing. Many organizations are pushing for the USDA to ban GMOs completely, as they have already done in Europe. Currently commercialized GM crops in the U.S. include soy (89%), cotton (83%), canola (80%), corn (61%), and some others. Of course, we must take into account how many products we use that include soy and corn especially (just about every artificial ingredient in processed food) as well as the clothing and house products that are made with some of these ingredients.
  • FAIR TRADE is a label placed on thousands of products these days ranging from tea and coffee to sugar to fruit, as well as some cotton and plants, to name a few. It is essentially a social movement which aims to promote sustainability and help producers in developing countries by making sure that exporting their products is economically fair to them, while also being environmentally and socially fair. fair trade products result in proper payment by buyers who cover the cost of sustainable production and enable producers to have control in the trading process. of course, it seems like this should be the obvious and natural way things go, but alas, exploitation and other skewed values have gotten in the way of our ability to see things like this clearly.
There is a lot of information out there (way beyond what I’ve delved into) about each of these topics, but the above is an overview of what you are looking at when you see these labels. Ultimately, the best way to shop is to be aware of what manufacturers are trying to sell you, what kind of impact these products have on your mental and physical health, your home, and your environment, and to make the best choices with what is available. Always go for local if you can, and consider joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) group which are almost always organic and often biodynamic. It is a great way to purchase seasonal food from local farms at a smaller cost than you’d pay at a farmer’s market. It also allows you a chance to try fruits and veggies you would not normally try, which could result in some awesome cooking experiments, especially because the flavors are so rich. You can go visit Local Harvest to find out more about getting involved.