Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What Do Food Labels Mean?

In my quest to start eating "healthy" and less processed foods, I've been exposed to a lot of food terms, some of which really didn't make sense to me. They're vague and ambiguous.  Wow that was so lawyer-y.  But it's true.  You've probably been bombarded with tons of these food terms too: "organic," "hormone free," "antibiotics free," "grass-fed," "GMO," "natural," "pesticide load," "free-range," "cage-free" AHHHHH it can drive you nuts!  What do these terms ACTUALLY mean?  How are we supposed to know what is ok to consume and what is potentially harmful to us?

For starters, let's look at pesticide loads, because you've probably heard about this and don't realize it.  This is best considered with a chart showing what produce is "dirty" - having a high pesticide load, and what is "clean" - having little to no pesticide load:

According to the Environmental Working Group ("EWG"), the Dirty Dozen are the most pesticide loaded produce sold in grocery stores. They have even added two more items to the Dirty Dozen list, stating that "...we have expanded the Dirty Dozen with a Plus category to highlight two crops – domestically-grown summer squash and leafy greens, specifically kale and collards. These crops did not meet traditional Dirty Dozen criteria but were commonly contaminated with pesticides exceptionally toxic to the nervous system."  So seriously, if you can afford it, the Dirty Dozen are the ones you want to buy organic.

The Clean Fifteen are the produce items at your grocery store that will be the safest, least chemically laden (if at all, some of the Clean Fifteen cannot be treated with pesticides and chemicals because of the nature of the plant).  These are OKAY to buy "conventional," without an "organic" label on them.  However, there's a separate problem with the Clean Fifteen.  Some of the items are well-known GMO plants.

The EWG states:
"Genetically modified plants, or GMOs, are not often found in the produce section of grocery stores. Field corn, nearly all of which is produced with genetically modified seeds, is used to make tortillas, chips, corn syrup, animal feed and biofuels. Because it is not sold as a fresh vegetable, it is not included in EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Nor is soy, another heavily GMO crop that makes its way into processed food.
The genetically modified crops likely to be found in produce aisles of American supermarkets are zucchini, Hawaiian papaya and some varieties of sweet corn. Most Hawaiian papaya is a GMO. Only a small fraction of zucchini and sweet corn are GMO. Since U.S. law does not require labeling of GMO produce, EWG advises people who want to avoid it to purchase the organically-grown versions of these items."
But what IS GMO?  GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism.  GMOs appear in a wide variety of applications, some of which can be good, like gene therapy, but our interest here is how GMOs affect our food.  Essentially GMO foods are those in which scientists have altered genetic material of the food item, by deleting genetic material, mutating genetic material, or by using genetic material from another source and incorporating it into the food item, creating a new version of it.  For example, the Flavr-savr tomato was the result of a tomato's genetic material being spliced with recombinant FISH DNA.  Doesn't sound very natural does it? 

If you don't know much about the health concerns involving GMOs, this blog article, while a bit alarmist, does summarize some pretty interesting studies regarding the potential effects of ingesting GMO foods.  Another worrisome concern is that companies are experimenting with producing genetically-engineered animals, which could be introduced for human consumption eventually.  You can read about developments with GE animals here and here to give you an idea of some of what's going on.

But what about all of those other food labels?

Let's just say this isn't the usual scenario with livestock...

According to our friend the EWG some terms related to animals and animal products are defined as follows:

"The term refers to hens that are not raised in cages, but it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors. There is no standard definition of “cage-free,” but it generally implies that the birds are free to perform natural behaviors. Many cage-free claims are not certified, though some cage-free eggs are certified by American Humane Certified label."
"In the United States, this term applies only to poultry and is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. It indicates simply that the animals have been “allowed access to the outside.” The USDA does not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside."
"This term technically refers only to animals fed a diet of natural grass and other forage, not grain, but it often includes other healthier farm practices not associated with industrially produced meat, such as local butchering, more range time for livestock and less crowded conditions. The three leading “grass-fed” labels, certified by the Food Alliance, the American Grassfed Association or the USDA, require that animals eat a diet exclusively of forage. Some companies that market their meat as “naturally raised” or grass-fed actually feed their animals grain for significant periods. USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” It does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on rangeland. Some cattle marketed as USDA grass-fed actually spend part of their lives in confined pens or feedlots."
Hormone-free/No added hormones:
"This means that the animals were never given hormone treatments. To boost profits, some farmers give hormones to beef cattle and sheep to speed their growth and to dairy cows to increase milk production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow hormones to be used in chickens, turkeys or hogs. The European Union does not allow hormones in any meat. The extensive use of hormones in meat and dairy may increase the risk of cancer in humans and result in higher rates of infection in animals. There is no specific hormone–free certification, though organic and grass–fed labels as well as many humane certifications do not allow hormone use. The label does not indicate whether antibiotics were used appropriately in animals.
"The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Processing must not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a specific explanation such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.” All fresh meat qualifies as natural. This term does not require that animals be raised in sufficient open space or indicate that antibiotics have been used prudently. It does not bar growth hormones. It does not mean organic. The term can mislead consumers to believe that the product is healthier and more humane than it is."
"Food labeled organic must be third-party certified to meet USDA’s criteria. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge. Organic meat and poultry cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics (sick animals must be treated but cannot be sold as organic) and must be fed only organically grown feed (with no animal byproducts). Organic meat animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture. There are two ways to identify organic fruits and vegetables: by the “100% organic” or “organic” label and by the unique Price Look-Up (PLU) code sticker. Instead of a 4-digit number beginning with a “4,” organic produce has a 5-digit number that begins with a “9.”"
If you'd like to see these and more terms defined by the EWG, check out their website.

Some other interesting terms:

The terms “natural flavor,” “natural flavoring,” “flavor” or “flavoring”  include essential oils, oleoresins, and spice extractives.  9 C.F.R. § 317.2(f) (1)(i)(B) (meat); 9 C.F.R. § 381.118(c)(2) (poultry).

"Antibiotics free" is subject to different interpretations, and different producers use different practices.  The EWG discusses this a bit on their website (linked above).  Fortunately, the FDA has implemented a voluntary plan with industry to phase out the use of certain antibiotics for enhanced food production.  The keyword in there is voluntary.  Kind of takes the wind out of those sails of hope, huh?  But there is some reason to believe that producers will start cutting back on antibiotic usage.  The harms it has and continues to cause are well-documented as is just briefly mentioned in the FDA's notice

So basically I just wanted to give you this knowledge so you know what you're buying, and can decide what matters to you and what is less of a priority.  While I'm sure we'd all love to buy everything organic, on the average household budget, that's just not possible.  So weigh what matters most to you and go from there!

Hope this helps.

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