Walking the aisles of a supermarket can be a mystifying experience. Claims jump out at you - Organic! All-natural! Locally-grown! -- making shopping a confusing proposition for anyone looking beyond Wonder bread and Kraft mac 'n' cheese. So what do those labels really mean?
Organic might be the simplest, just because the US Department of Agriculture does regulate the use of the term. Government-certified organic products may label their food package with a "USDA Organic" label and actually use the word "organic" on the front. There are several levels of organic standards:
"100% Organic" means that, yes, the product is 100% organic.
"Organic" means that the food is 95-100% organic. A listing of ingredients in the product that are organic -- for example, "Made with organic almonds and oats" means that at least 70% of the total food product is organic. If the organic ingredients are listed on the side or rear panel, that just means that yes, those almonds and oats are organic, but the sum total of organic ingredients is less than 70%.
Government certification means that the food is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic or sludge-derived fertilizers, bioengineering or radiation. Meat and dairy products that are organic have been given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Water and soil conservation efforts are also taken into account by certifiers who visit the farm.
A label claiming "all-natural" can be misleading. While it is typically true that said product does not contain any ingredient not occurring in nature, the process that make use of a particular ingredient might be far from natural.
A perfect example is with fructose corn syrup -- currently the whipping boy in the national obesity epidemic. High fructose corn syrup is natural -- it is derived from whole grain corn. But the corn is refined, the sugars extracted and thus concentrated. Technically all natural, but realistically, food borne in a laboratory.
Locally grown food can be tougher - and arguably, "greener" than organic food grown thousands of miles away. While many smaller grocers make an effort to stock their shelves with locally-grown and produced foods, sometimes the print is fine and seeking it out takes time. One great way to learn about the origin of your food is to build relationships with the farmers at your local farmers market. You can generally tell what is locally in-season by a preponderance of one or several crops at many of the vendors' tables. Hint: mangoes are not local.
When you really start to get into food labeling and origin, it will add some time to your shopping trip. But what it really adds to is your quality of life. Knowing what you are eating makes eating itself a more special occasion -- which in turn, leads to a healthier relationship with food than has been common for many decades in the US.
Writer: Kelli B. Kavanaugh