Breaking news of e-Coli contamination, salmonella, pesticide and herbicide warnings, and even “Mad Cow” continue to put fear in our minds. How can we ever feel safe eating again? Food manufacturers stick labels on foods to make us think what we're about to eat is “safe,” but what do those labels actually mean and should we trust them?
Why Choose Organic?
Generally, Certified Organic is the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) label verifying food is produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. In addition, they have not been genetically modified, irradiated - or in the case of animal products – been given antibiotics, growth hormones, or nonorganic feed. Some experts claim that organic produce contains more nutrients than its conventional counterpart, but the jury is still out. Organic produce does, however, ensure that produce is delivered in the packaging that nature intended and it will always nourish your body the way it should.
When shopping for fruits and vegetables, choosing organic labels is especially important when it comes to the “dirty dozen," the Environmental Working Group’s list of the twelve most contaminated crops. If purchasing produce from the grocery store, look for stickers that contain a 5-digit number starting with a 9, designating it as an organic product. While it is best to choose organic as often as possible, it may not be available or financially feasible. In that case, make sure to thoroughly wash your produce.
Meat, Poultry, and Eggs
How do you pick the healthiest options for meat, poultry and eggs? Read below to find out the different labels that are commonly used and how to navigate your purchase.
- Cage-Free – This label may suggest a healthy product, but it is, in fact, quite deceiving and no different than your standard chicken or egg. It means the chickens were not confined to cages and had enough space to walk around, but didn’t necessarily have access to the outdoors and may still be put through processes like beak cutting. Unless also labeled organic, these may still be fed non-organic, grain feed.
- Free-range – This term is regulated by the USDA. To bear this label, poultry must have access to the outdoors, although a minimum amount of time outdoors has not been established. Eggs cannot be regulated by this measure.
- Grass-fed – Grass-fed beef has been shown to provide more Omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed beef. In order to be considered grass-fed, the majority of an animal’s feed must be from grass or forage. Surprisingly, a 'grass-fed' label does not mean the animal had access to the outdoors. So, unfortunately, we’ve been duped again into thinking these grass-fed cows once lived on happy farms.
- Natural – The term “natural,” although not certified, only applies to meat and poultry. According to the USDA, natural refers to products containing no artificial ingredients, added colors and are minimally processed. You may also see this label on packaged foods. In that case, ignore it; marketing gurus found it sells more products, despite having no definition or regulations. In some surveys, people actually thought foods claiming to be natural were overall better choices than organic foods.
If consuming dairy, the only way to go is Organic. Non-organic dairy cattle are continuously injected with hormones to boost milk production. These hormones may alter your own endocrine system and lead to hormone-driven diseases such as breast, prostate and ovarian cancers.
There are currently no organic standards for fish. When choosing fish, stick with wild-caught instead of farm-raised to avoid toxins such as PCBs. Also reduce or eliminate consumption of high-mercury-containing fish such as swordfish, King mackerel, Ahi tuna, tilefish and shark.
Foods that come in boxes, bags and cans stamped with an Organic label tend to instill a health halo. Think about organic chocolate chip cookies, organic potato chips, or organic granola bars; these are not health foods and should be eaten with just as much caution as the original version. However, if you do eat these products (which all of us deserve to every now and then!), here’s how the labels stack up:
“100 percent organic” – must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically-produced ingredients and processing aids.
“Organic” – must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
“Made with organic ingredients” – products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients may use this phrase and list up to three of the organic ingredients on the front display panel.
Any product containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients are prohibited from using the term 'organic' anywhere on the principal display panel, however they may use it to describe organic ingredients on the information/ingredient label.
Having a better understanding of where your food comes from and how to read labels can turn your shopping cart into a bounty of healthy foods. Remember to take the time when you are shopping to read labels and go for quality over quantity. You can’t put a price on good health!