Food for Thought

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Do We Have Any Idea What We Are Buying?

Raise your hand if you also feel like you want to punch someone when you leave a grocery store. It’s not just because the aisles are overcrowded, the other shoppers are grumpy, or that other people’s carts ram my heels. It’s because my mission is simple (buy good, healthy food), yet the execution feels overly complicated. For every food choice, there seems to be at least ten different choices - all with pictures, labels, terms that sound nice, but I don’t fully understand. After quite some time feeling helpless, I decided to do a deep dive and try to figure out what all these words and labels mean.  Surprisingly and frustratingly, research just made me feel more confused.  So I called up two of the women I trust most in food -- Marion Nestle and Laurie David - to get their advice. Laurie explained to me on the phone, “Labels are really marketing tools, so we have to be so, so suspicious when we're shopping at our local supermarket.”

But why are food labels so obfuscated? Marion explains the economics behind that in her excellent book What To Eat: All private companies have to show financial growth every 90 days. If a CEO doesn’t deliver on that, they will likely be fired. For food companies, that kind of growth means releasing new products, identifying where consumers are spending their money, and then doing whatever they can to get in on that action. Food companies have influence in the form of connections, money, and lobbying, and they will often work to chip away or widen the scope of meaning on a certain term (like “organic” for example) to get their products to fit a given definition. This can have the long-term consequence of making terms/words end up becoming confused at best and meaningless at worst.

What was Laurie and Marion’s mutual advice? They both said that the way they navigate food labels is to avoid branded food products as much as possible. When you can’t, here is a handy guide to 10 common food terms and labels to help you make an educated decision.


What you think it means: “Natural” is a nice word with lovely green, lush, pure connotations. I hear natural and I think it was made by nature so it must be healthy, right? Wrong.

What it actually means: The term “natural” or just the word “natural” don’t mean much of anything.  Natural products can include:

  • Those that are genetically modified.
  • Those grown using pesticides
  • Those with added sugar or corn syrup (both technically “natural”!)

The only limitation is that “natural products” cannot contain artificial flavor, color, or other synthetic additives. As far as “natural meat” is concerned, it does not mean the meat was anti-biotics free or cage-free. [peekaboo_content] Take away: The word “natural” is not officially defined by government agencies in the USA, and does not mean much when it comes to food labeling. I now steer clear of products with the natural label as a form of boycott/protest, because I feel like whoever is using that term on packaging is trying to dupe me.


What you think it means: 100% organic, no GMO seeds, no pesticides or herbicides, seeds and food were not irradiated, and no synthetic fertilizers were used.

What it really means:  All of the above assumptions would be correct. The farmers who get the Certified Organic Seal have to do AN INSANE amount of paper work, including tracing and recording all of their farming practices. Because the process to get the seal is so onerous, some organic farmers choose not to get it. It’s important to note, however, that organic does not equal local. Meaning, you can buy an organic vegetable shipped from half way around the world. (As a fun/weird/gross/interesting aside, this Radiolab podcast explains how sewage sludge fertilizes our organic crops!)

Take away: The USDA Organic Seal does not come easily and “it really means something” in the words of Laurie David.  However, it bears repeating, organic does not necessarily mean local. Also, it’s equally important to note that produce at a Farmer’s Market may be local, but not organic. When it comes to shopping for organic at a Farmer’s Market, it has to say ORGANIC. If you’re not sure, ask.



1) Organic (no mention of the word “certified”) means 95-99% of the ingredients are organic.

2) “Made with organic ingredients” on the front of a food package means 74%-94% of ingredients are made from organic ingredients.

3) “Organic” only on the information panel means 73% or less of the ingredients are organic.



What you think it means:  These animals were happy creatures with blissful lives, roaming in open fields with freedom of movement and access to fresh air and sunshine. They ate organic grass and were not given antibiotics or hormones.

What it actually means: Marion Nestle explains, “The organic label requires meat to be produced without antibiotics, hormones, or GMOs, and to be fed organic feed. 

If the label says USDA Certified Organic, that’s what it means.” So use of open pastures and freedom of movement does not enter into the equation here, unless explicitly stated. Additionally, it does not mean that they were grass-fed, the animals could have been fed non-GMO soy and corn feed.

Take away: The “organic meat” label is a good indication that the animal were not given antibiotics or hormones and were not fed GMO’s or animal by-products, but that is sadly where the reassurance ends.


What you think it means: I don’t know about you, but if I hear that an animal has been raised and killed in a certifiably humane way, I think that means it has been fed food food that is not animal by-product, and had access to ample outdoor space, as well as freedom to engage in natural behaviors (foraging, eating grass, etc).

What It Actually Means: Hold on to your hats for this doozy -- Humane is actually a completely subjective term. Finding reliable info on this was tough, and what I was able to dig up was for chickens. The "Certified Humane"  label does not require any outdoor access for laying or broiler chickens. It does mean that chickens were not subjected to tiny cages, but doesn’t they were not overcrowded (certified humane farms must only be provide with 1-1 ½ square feet of space per hen). Also, beak trimming, performed to prevent a chicken from picking its too-close neighbor, is still allowed.

Takeaway: The Certified Humane label does mean that some considerations for the chicken's well being were taken into account, but it doesn't even come close to providing the guarantees the label would seem to suggest. The fact that it was difficult to find, clear, concise, reliable info on this was a major bummer for me.


What you think it means: These chickens were living in a barn or outside and had free range to engage in their instinctual foraging behavior.

What it actually means: It just means that chickens are not living in cages. “Cage-free” chickens can still live in aviaries (massive industrial barns with thousands of birds), with each chicken having, about 1-1 ½ square feet of space. Granted, they are still better off than caged counter parts, but still not great.

Take Away: At the end of the day, unless you are raising and slaughtering meat yourself, there is really no way to have a GUARANTEE that your meat was treated well, fed well, and had a happy life. I have found the closest thing to a guarantee is to find a butcher you trust, look that person in the eye when you ask the tough questions, and just they are not pathological liars.


What you think it means: It’s fair to assume that if an animal is being grass fed, they have access to a pasture full of lovely green grass.

What it actually means:  The term “grass fed” on the label, does not necessarily mean that the animal was kept outside, nor does it guarantee that the animal ate grass its whole life. There is not even that much clarity around how much of the said animal’s diet was grass.

Take away: Unless explicitly stated, grass-fed does not equate to free-range or even that the animal had access to the outdoors, unless explicitly stated. Even when the grass-fed label is warranted, it is not clear how much of an animal’s diet was grass or if was given grass its whole life.


What you think it means: Animals were allowed to roam freely in an open range (pasture).

What It Actually Means: The term free range guarantees access to outdoor space, but not necessarily a pasture. Sadly, there is not legal standard for “free-range”. It just means the animal had access to outdoor space.

Take Away: Again, I just rely on my gut when I am asking my butcher questions here. Generally, I ask for meat that is organic, pasture raised, and humane. Unless I go to the farms myself there is no real way of knowing.


What You Think It Means: A Fair Trade label means that workers have been paid a fair wage for their labor and have been treated responsibly. It is also a guarantee of no child or forced labor.

What It Really Means: The Fair Trade seal does mean that workers were paid above market prices for their cropsand that there was no child or forced labor. The “treated responsibly” part is not necessarily true, however. It is also important to point out Fair Trade does not equal organic, chemical pesticides could have been used to grow this product.  There is on going controversy and debate around whether or not large-scale plantations should be eligible for Fair Trade certification.

Take Away: Paying fair wages is important and that is what the fair trade label is communicating to you. The label is not without controversy, however, and does not mean that the product you are buying is organic, unless explicitly stated.


What You Think It Means: Products that receive Rainforest Alliance certification have been grown with an eye toward conserving and protecting the environment, including safe guarding waterways, and conserving wildlife. Presumably that would also mean growing organic crops, using organic methods.

What It Really Means: Not so much on the organic part, but certified Rainforest Alliance products must protect the environment and conserve wildlife. Additionally, growers must be paid above average market prices for their crops, men and women are paid equal wages, unions can form, and there are child labor laws in place.

Take Away: The Rainforest Alliance seal is a good indication that the product was grown with a focus on sustainability and care for the workers. The Alliance’s independent auditors ensure that the strict system is being followed. However, some of these stringent rules can shut out the smallest, poorest farmers.


What You Think It Means: Genetically Modified Organisms have had their DNA altered by biotech companies, such as Monsanto and DuPont. Most GMO’s are plants, which have been modified to be virus, insect, and/or drought resistant. Pesticides are used on these products, as are insecticides and herbicides. The biotech companies behind GMO’s are quite possibly headed by Darth Vader.

What It Actually Means: All of the above is correct, though the Darth Vader point is obviously a joke (though biotech have not done themselves a lot of favors in shrugging off this reputation). GMO crops are used in animal feed and as ingredients in processed foods on supermarket shelves.

Takeaway:  If you want to avoid GMO foods, shop the periphery of your grocery store and avoid middle aisles as much as possible. The outer aisles are where you will find fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy. In other words, keep the processed foods in your cart to a minimum.


Now that you have all of this info, what to do? I hope at the very least, you feel slightly more informed and empowered to navigate your local supermarket. On the other hand, realizing what these food labels really mean can be disheartening (I know it was for me). Without getting into the weeds of all these food label debates, I’d like to offer three pieces of advice:

  1) If you’re on SNAP, budgeting for whole foods can be a serious challenge. I love the Good And Cheap (free download!) cookbook, which is designed around recipes anyone could make on a budget of just $4 a day.

2) Let’s face it: Sometimes getting to the farmers market is just not possible or feels like a total drag. When I can’t buy seasonal, local, organic produce for whatever reason, I refer to EWG’s 2015 Shoppers Guide. It tells me which fruits and vegetables are safe to purchase conventionally versus organically as far as pesticide load. Here are The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifeteen.

3) If the lack of transparency pisses you off (and it should) never underestimate the power of your dollars. Every time you purchase a product, you are voting. The best way to fight against a system where unhealthy processed foods are cheaper than healthy, unprocessed foods is to vote with your dollars and purchase/support what you want to see more of.


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