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Demystifying Food Labels

By Kim Robson:

We’ve all seen these marketing stickers on fresh produce or even prepared foods, labels touting their eco-friendly attributes, such as

  • Non-GMO
  • Organic
  • Free-Range
  • Ethically Harvested
  • Fair Trade
  • Grass Fed
  • Pasture Raised
  • Gluten Free

In the past, we’ve covered the various and often confusing labels on egg cartons. Today, let’s delve into the claims seen on those little labels that seem to have become ubiquitous on not only fresh fruits and vegetables, but just about everything ingestible.

First of all, the following terms are NOT regulated and are simply marketing buzzwords. In fact, the first three terms have no fixed meaning at all.

  • Natural
  • Farm fresh
  • Fertile
  • Pasteurized
  • Vegetarian-fed
  • Omega-3 enriched

For instance, the term “non-GMO” means that the food has not been genetically modified, but marketing geniuses apply this label to foods like strawberries and mangoes, that never were genetically modified, just because people will think they’re better. The same thing applies when it comes to “gluten free” foods — I’ve seen dozens of labels applied to foods or drinks, like distilled spirits, that never would have contained gluten in the first place. And unless those foods are labeled “certified organic,” they will have been sprayed with toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Kind of defeats the purpose, right?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network at Oregon State University, said in an NPR interview, “They’re doing it to differentiate themselves, even though their product is exactly the same as everything else on the shelf. It’s primarily a market-driven label that big industry really loves.”

“Organic” or “Certified organic” labeling is strictly regulated and enforced. Not only is organic produce better for you and your children, but it is also better for the environment and for soil health. As for animal welfare, look for labeling that says “Pasture-raised” or “CertifiedHumane.” Anything less than that is inferior.

Then there’s “Fair Trade.” We see it applied mainly to coffee and cocoa products, and it’s supposed to guarantee a living wage and higher quality of life for the front-line farmers who grow it. But does that actually happen? Fair-trade products tend upwards of 30% higher in cost, but that “may not be enough to lift a small coffee producer out of poverty,” according to Kim Elena Ionescu, chief sustainability officer for the Specialty Coffee Association. She suggests taking a broader view and addressing the systemic problems at cause: “When it comes to solving the world’s problems, your shopping decisions aren’t nearly as important as political decisions.”

Ultimately, the best and easiest thing to do is to shop for food grown locally and organically. Get the majority of your foods from farmers’ markets, farm stands, a community supported agriculture (CSA) share, local food co-ops, community gardens, edible lawns, or small independently-owned grocery stores. By supporting local, sustainable agriculture, we shrink the food production chain and create a much smaller carbon footprint.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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