In general, there is a lot of confusion about the terminology used when describing food. With everyone vying for your dollar and trying to find their market niche, it’s no wonder consumers find themselves confused about what it all means.
The following is a brief overview of what some commonly used words and terms mean. As always, one of the great benefits of buying local food products is you can always personally ask the farmer what they mean when using a word or term you aren’t familiar with. Never be afraid to ask questions.
Certified Organic means that the food is grown or produced following guidelines established by the USDA. The organic guidelines address many factors including soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. Independent organic certifying agencies complete inspections and evaluations to determine initial organic certification of a farm and continuing compliance. While the basic standards for organic production are consistent across regulatory agencies, some certifying agencies may be more or less stringent as far as what is considered a deviation from the standards.
Organic practices is a term commonly used by farmers who follow many or all standard organic practices, but are not officially certified organic. This allows the farmer to tailor their management practices to what they and their customers want without a lot of regulatory oversight. You probably won’t see this on labels in the grocery store, but if you buy local food products you will most likely hear it or see it when farmers are promoting their products. Don’t hesitate to ask them to explain what that means to them and their farm.
Natural is a relatively vague word when used to describe food. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for overseeing and regulating food production, does not define or regulate the use of the word “natural” on labels. The FDA official policy is that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances”. This is obviously a very broad policy that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. On the other hand, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does regulate use of the word “natural” when applied to meat, poultry, and eggs, and states that a “natural” food is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed”. However, the use of the word “natural” does not necessarily mean hormone-free or antibiotic-free; these are separate labels, that are also regulated by the USDA.
Cage Free and Free Range are two common terms found on egg cartons. These terms are regulated by the USDA if the eggs are packed in USDA grade marked packages. Even if you are not buying eggs in USDA marked packages, it is good to know the definitions so if management practices are important to you, you can ask the right questions from whoever you are buying from. According to the USDA, cage free eggs are laid by “hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water. Cage-free systems must allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors and include enrichments such as scratch areas, perches and nests. Hens must have access to litter, protection from predators and be able to move in a barn in a manner that promotes bird welfare.” The USDA definition of free range is almost exactly the same as that of cage free, with the difference being the hens must have “continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.” The USDA does not specify exactly how much space each bird must be given in the outdoor area.
Grass Fed and Pastured are two more words that cause a lot confusion. It is important to note that grass fed does NOT mean organic. The USDA defines grass fed as: “grass and/or forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” Therefore, an animal can be called pastured, but not grass fed if it is raised on pasture or given access to pasture, but is also fed other feed sources such as grain. This difference is especially important if you, the consumer is paying a premium for “grass fed” products. In general, it is less efficient to produce meat and milk solely on grass which is the reason why 100% grass fed products are more expensive.
Now let’s throw grain finished into the mix. Often times a beef animal can be fed one hundred percent grass for the majority of its life, but then supplemented with grain for final few weeks before slaughter. This will give the meat a different flavor and a little more marbling (less lean) than if the animal was solely grass fed. If you, the consumer is concerned about the amount of grain the animal gets, once again, this is a great time to ask your local producer exactly what the animal is being fed. There is a very broad spectrum of feeding practices between large feedlots that finish cattle on diets consisting of well over 60% grain to small, local producers who only feed a few pounds to finish an animal.
A couple of other words I would like to touch on are pasteurized and homogenized. These are words almost always seen on milk containers, and surprisingly, many people are confused about what they mean. Pasteurized simply means that the milk has been heat treated to kill bacteria and pathogens that may or may not be present that could be harmful to humans. Pasteurization also plays an important role in extending the shelf life of milk. Homogenized means that the fat globules in the milk have been processed and broken down into smaller particle sizes so that the milk fat doesn’t separate from the milk. In non-homogenized milk, the cream with float to the top. Homogenization prevents this and leaves the consumer with a consistently mixed product.
Hopefully these definitions and description have helped to clarify any question or confusion you may have in regards to food labels and descriptions. If food production practices are important to you, educate yourself, never be afraid to question, and always be aware of the source of information.
Photo of Dairy Cows in Collins Center New York 1999 courtesy Wikimedia user Daniellagreen.