When you shop for food in a supermarket, the choices are endless. Sure, it’s a snap to find the ingredients you want, but sorting out package claims can be overwhelming. Getting what you’re paying for means learning some basic terms. Here’s a sampling:
WHAT DOES “ORGANIC” MEAN?
“Certified organic” is one label that’s strictly regulated. To be certified organic, a farm must be pesticide- and herbicide-free for at least three years and meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Any companies that handle or process organic food on its way to the supermarket also must be certified.
Pros: Organic produce has fewer trace residues of pesticides. According to some – but not all – research, some organic produce may have more nutrients. It is more environmentally friendly since fewer pesticides or herbicides get into the groundwater.
To consider: Organic food can be more expensive than conventional. And don’t forget that while organic food may be grown, handled and processed differently than conventional food, it’s not necessarily safer or more nutritious, according to the USDA. What really matters for your health is getting more fruits and vegetables in your diet, whether they’re organic or not.
WHAT DOES “NATURAL” MEAN?
Anyone can put the term “natural” (or “all natural”) on most foods, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no formal definition of the term and doesn’t regulate it or police it. So far, according to the agency, it has “not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.” The one exception: meats and poultry, which are regulated by the USDA.
Pros: USDA-regulated meat and poultry will be free of artificial ingredients or added color, and will be only minimally processed. (The term “naturally raised” is a voluntary – read: unregulated – label that means livestock have been raised without antibiotics and growth hormones and have not been fed animal byproducts.) Food labeled “natural” should not contain synthetic food dyes, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.
To consider: Since the FDA doesn’t regulate the term “natural” for anything other than meat and poultry, it’s best to read the label to see what’s really in your food. And keep in mind that “natural” in no way implies any product is organic, local or humanely raised.
WHAT DOES “LOCAL” MEAN?
Anyone can say their food is “local,” but local to where? The country? The state? The town? According to the 2008 Farm Bill, a food should not be labeled “local” if it has traveled more than 400 miles from where it was grown or produced to the market.
Federal regulations require “country of origin labeling,” or COOL, for meats, fish, fresh and frozen produce, peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts – so for those foods, you can check to see how “local” that place of origin actually is to you.
Pros: Buying local supports your neighbors. It can also be better for your health, since local fruits and vegetables are often allowed to ripen longer and thus often taste better and carry more nutrients.
To consider: Just because a label says a food is “local” doesn’t guarantee that it wasn’t produced on a factory farm, or that it’s organic or sustainable.