Buzz Words

It is difficult to reject industrialized farming practices when we don’t understand what we’re buying. The educated consumer can put their money where their values lie.

Organic – Certainly this is the biggest buzz word in the supermarket today, yet most people don’t even know what it means. Most basically, ‘organic’ means that fruits & veggies were grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation, and that meat, dairy, and eggs are from animals that were not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or “animal protein products.”

However, not all organics are created equal. The USDA (who wants their farmers to profit) has 3 official categories of ‘organic’:

100% Organic – All ingredients were raised/harvested in a fully organic way

Organic – Made with at least 95% organic ingredients

Made With Organic Ingredients – Made with at least 70% organic ingredients and restrictions on the remaining 30%, including no genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

It is important to realize that ‘organic’ does NOT indicate grass-fed or free-range. Organic meat, eggs, and dairy sold at large-scale suppliers (like Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, HEB, etc) are most often fed a diet of organic corn and raised in CAFO-like conditions (many animals crammed into a small space, etc).

At the beginning of the organic movement, organic was hyped as better for the environment, however this is now hotly debated. Most research suggests that organic agriculture has marginally lower carbon emissions than conventional methods, but the results depend on the crop, the soils, and the skill of the farmer.

The quality of organic foods over conventional foods is another debated issue. Some studies have shown that organic foods contain higher levels of vitamins and nutrients, but there are also claims that this is not true.

Grass-Fed – This one, at its basics, is fairly self-explanatory: the animal is fed grass, not corn. Because the animal is eating what it was designed to eat, the meat and dairy products produced from grass-fed animals is healthier for you. There is no debate about this. It has less total fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol, and fewer calories. It is richer in antioxidants including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, and richer in healthy fats including omega-3 fatty acids.

However, ‘grass-fed’ does NOT indicate ‘organic’. These animals could still be treated with antibiotics, hormones, or may be eating grass treated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. At local farmers’ markets, this is generally not the case, but at grocery stores, check for both ‘grass-fed’ and ‘organic’ labels just to be sure. The USDA is currently working on official regulations for ‘grass-fed’ product labeling.

Vegetarian-fed – Indicates that the animal was not fed rendered “animal protein products.” This does NOT indicate ‘organic’ nor ‘grass-fed’.

Natural – One of the biggest marketing ploys out there. Many people associate ‘natural’ with ‘organic’ or ‘grass-fed’. Don’t fall for it! Most ‘natural’ products do not contain synthetic ingredients, but there are no regulations on what can be labeled ‘natural,’ they’re just trying to leech on to the organic movement by confusing consumers.

Free Range/Cage-Free – Another deceiving term. Do not be fooled into thinking these animals live on an open field. The USDA does not have any regulations on ‘free range’ labeling, except with regards to poultry. The official USDA regulations on ‘free range’ poultry state that the chickens must have “access to the outdoors” to be labeled free range. Unfortunately, this leads to farmers having a small door in their chicken coop, that they admit is kept closed for the beginning of the chicken’s life and only opened after the chickens are used to being crammed in the hen house, so they don’t even try to go outside once it’s opened. And this is labeled ‘free-range.’ Similarly, ‘cage-free’ may indicate a lack of wire mesh, but the animals are still crammed far too many to a coop.

For beef, pork, and other non-poultry, there is absolutely no criteria, and the USDA relies “upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.” Uh, right. Once again, claims of free-range and cage-free are much more believable at a local farmer’s market, than in the grocery store.

Buyers beware.

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