Labels, Links and Lore – Understanding the Food We Eat
Free range, GMO, USDA organic, natural, locally grown, sustainably grown, SmartLabel®, gluten free, zero carbs, fat free, vegan, lactose free, no hormones added, no water added, no pesticides, free from, B-corp certified, rainforest alliance certified, women owned, pasture raised, grass fed, no antibiotics, humanely raised, certified transitional, no artificial flavors, plant based, low sodium, paleo friendly, farm-fresh, regenerative…
Are you confused? Because I am. In a world of unlimited information, understanding where your food comes from, how it is produced, and what you should eat has become an overwhelming process. One morning, I looked at a piece of bacon, and didn’t know whether to eat it, use the oil for my cuticles, feed it to the dog or put it in my coffee. Seriously, it’s hard to understand what the multitude of labels with often unfamiliar terms on our food really mean. Labels serve a variety of purposes; some are for safety (e.g., gluten free) while others market to certain values and beliefs. We should all be relieved to know that there are people and institutions in place to assure our health and safety, so let’s dive into what it all means.
Three of the major agencies at the federal level monitor our food, and provide some guidance and oversight on labels. The U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each regulates a different aspect of our food system. To learn more, click on the links above.
So what do some of the labels and links on your food really mean versus what is just lore?
Sustainably Produced: one of the most dreaded answers…it depends. There are several regional and global sustainability certifications, so this is one that will require you to do more digging. Generally, food sustainability claims focus on three areas: environment, social practices and profit. That may mean utilizing practices that not only meet today’s food demands but also anticipate the needs of future generations, including food production that protects the environment, preserves natural resources and support success and quality of life for farmers today and tomorrow.
This could be a great place to note that the agricultural community is increasingly focused on areas such as climate change/carbon sequestration, soil health biodiversity and water quality and quantity. It’s hard to convey all of that on a label today, but it’s a great conversation for consumers to have with farmers, food and ag companies.
Natural: Another, “it depends” response. While the USDA has a definition for meat and poultry, the FDA does not. The FDA is considering potentially defining the term but it has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for “natural.” Due to recent legal challenges, most companies are shying away from using this definition. One common misconception is that natural also means “organic.” But, organic has its own very specific set of guidelines (see below) that are well defined and audited.
USDA Organic: Through the National Organic Program (NOP), there are well defined standards and practices that must be followed to obtain and use the USDA Organic seal. According to the USDA, “organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.” Within the program, there are four labeling categories: 100 percent organic; organic; “made with” organic ingredients and specified organic ingredients.
The NOP doesn’t allow use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers but does permit natural pesticides and fertilizers in production. What’s a natural pesticide or fertilizer? Think things like copper and animal manure.
And, organic livestock has an additional set of rules requiring that animals must graze pastures during a minimal 120-day season each year. For more information, click here.
Every country has different labels for organic, so if you are outside the U.S. check with the local Department or Ministry of Agriculture to see how it is defined.
Labels, Links and Lore – Understanding the Food We Eat
Non-GMO Verified: The butterfly label. This label means that the product was raised without genetic engineering. What is genetic engineering, or a GMO? Genetic modification is the “production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods.” Typically, this is done to give it beneficial traits, such as greater nutrition, disease resistance or tolerance to drought. The GMO label doesn’t refer to organic or natural so be sure to keep looking on the packaging to find the list of ingredients. And, if the food is certified organic, it is required to be non-GMO.
Locally grown: There is no generally accepted definition of locally grown food. “Local” can refer to a specific geographic distance, grown within a state or to a particular region. The 2008 Farm Bill defined local as “the total distance that a product can be transported … is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.”
The best rule of thumb is to ask your food source -- the producer manager, seller at your local farmers market or other supplier where the food was grown.
Gluten free: Whether for a health reason or simply a preference you may be one of the people that buy gluten free. The FDA has defined this as “meaning that the food either is inherently gluten free; or does not contain an ingredient that is: 1) a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat); 2) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or 3) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food. Also, any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm.”
But, keep an eye out here. Certain foods labeled “gluten free” have no gluten content such as salt, bottled water and fresh fruits and vegetables. So, if you are hankering for a gluten free apple, any old apple will do!
B corp certified: This black and white label is newer on the food scene and means that the company has gone through the process of certifying as a B Corporation. According to the website, “the B Impact Assessment evaluates how your company’s operations and business model impact your workers, community, environment, and customers. From your supply chain and input materials to your charitable giving and employee benefits, B Corp Certification proves your business is meeting the highest standards of verified performance.”
B Corp certification must achieve a minimum verified score across a company’s impact on the environment, community, customers and workers. Again, check out the company’s website to see what specific efforts they have made to achieve this certification.
Pasture raised and grass fed: There are a few certifying bodies that give a “pasture raised” or “grass fed” label that can generally mean a couple of things. If pasture raised, the animals graze outdoors whenever weather permits and then are fed grain to supplemental the diet. Grass fed generally means the animals were fattened on a lifetime diet of 100% forage, grazing on pasture and consuming dried forage like hay.
If you see a grass or pasture fed label, check out the company story on their website.
Regenerative: this could be a new term for many people. There are still a lot of changes happening in this area, but a couple of certifying bodies already have emerged. One is Regenerative Organic Certified, a program that requires an organic baseline, plus some other practices. Those practices focus on increasing soil organic matter, improving animal welfare and providing economic stability and fairness for growers, ranchers and workers. Other regenerative programs may not require the organic baseline but still have a strong focus on things like soil health, biodiversity and animal welfare practices.
Wow – is your head spinning a bit? Mine too. The good news is that there is a ton of great information about how your food is grown. When in doubt, ask questions of a grower or the food company. They love to hear from consumers and to tell the story about how their food is grown and made.