Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Food Labeling - What the Words Really Mean

On a typical trip to the grocery store, we're bombarded with a flood of catchy slogans and claims about what's in each product, where it comes from, and how buying it will benefit us. When we get to the meat counter, we often see two deceptively similar claims sitting right next to each other - the terms "certified organic" and "all natural".  The package with the all natural logo is usually cheaper, and since it sounds so similar to organic, we should opt for the cheaper one, right?  Unfortunately, like most things, you do in fact get what you pay for.

Certified USDA Organic foods are required to pass a rigorous federally mandated verification program before they can be considered organic.  This process is governed by well established regulations and enforced by the US government.  Animals that are raised organically must never be treated with antibiotics, and must only be fed organic, non-genetically modified food.  Livestock raised under such strict regulations is often much more expensive than its factory farmed brethren, so buying the cheaper "natural" version might seem like a great deal.

However, foods labeled "natural" are cheaper for a reason.  In truth, the natural label doesn't really tell us anything about the food.  In the case of meat, the common assumption that all natural livestock was raised under better, more wholesome conditions than animals without the natural label is wholly incorrect.  The natural label only means that the meat was minimally processed without artificial ingredients, which has nothing to do with how the animal lived before it reached the slaughterhouse.

According to an article for KNVO news, the USDA has been working to clarify this confusing labeling system, but for now they have had little success.  For consumers, the best course of action for now is to know what different labels mean.  I had posted a great resource from the Natural Resources Defense Council a while back as an addition to another topic, but I felt that I didn't give it enough direct attention at the time, so here it is again.  This is a comprehensive list of labels rated on reliability, with full explanations about what each label really means.  If we arm ourselves with the knowledge that's out there, we will ultimately be doing ourselves, our economy, and our food policy a huge favor.

Wishing you a pleasant shopping experience,
-Melissa

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