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Deciphering Food Labels Require Critical Thinking Skills

Think back to your school days. Do you remember classes where they actually taught you to think for yourselves; to be skeptical of marketing campaigns, educated you about “reading between the lines?”

Perhaps it was just in the schools I attended, but I specifically remember classroom units where we tore out ad campaigns found in magazines, newspapers and the like; uncoded intentionally confusing verbiage, looked for recognizable gimmicks and schemes, learned about “bait and switch” and other consumer offenses. In essence, we learned to never really trust anything said or implied in any adverting campaign.

Whoever said schoolwork doesn’t relate to real life? Lesson learned … at least when it comes to deciphering food labels.

If you care about the freshness of foods you and your family consume, the health benefits provided therein or our environment, chances are you are a food label reader. And if so, you are among the 81% of consumers, more than 8 of 10 shoppers, who purchase foods according to words printed on those labels. If so … label beware.

Semantics are key.

“Made with” and “Contains” can mean entirely different things. “Organic” and “Natural” and “Local” and “Sustainable” are semantics open to interpretation. Know what you read and specifically, know what it means.

Do you gravitate to labels marked “locally grown” in your grocery store? I do! It’s like a magnet that draws me clear across the produce isles. In fact, I patronize stores where produce is consistently and clearly labeled, “Product of …”

Today, I stood at an Easter display in Safeway, reading everything on the package label of a chocolate bunny to determine whether or not it was produced in China. It wasn’t cleared labeled. I then brought out my BlackBerry and went on the supplier’s webpage. And after reading through a lot of promotional material, found that all their chocolate is made from USA grown and procured ingredients and produced in their Pennsylvania factories. A lot of work when a simple, “Made in the USA” label would have worked quite nicely.

I’ve come across a number of articles recently alerting consumers to beware of food labels and their sometimes erroneous meanings. Here are some of the most popular and trendy phrases that catch our eye.

Locally Grown.

You might imagine this means the produce was grown within a small radius of your community, perhaps even in your state. I might even call it locally grown if it was grown in my region – the Pacific Northwest. The entire West Coast would be a stretch, but plausible. Recently, a consumer who just happens to work for the U.S. Agricultural Department was drawn to a display of strawberries with a “locally grown” sign in her East Coast neighborhood grocery store. She was confused after consulting the package label that clearly read “grown in California,” over 2,000 miles away.

“Locally Grown” is the trendiest word in groceries these days. It follows the blockbuster “Organic” movement.

Defining the word “local” is really up to the individual. What it may mean to you is that it was grown in your community or state. What it means to the grocery store or product company may be two very different things.

The USDA has found that there are no universally accepted definitions of the word “local” in advertising food products. While they differ from state to state and company to company, it’s worth your time to know where your food comes from. Don’t just trust “local.” Ask tough questions and read the fine print.

The Agriculture Department estimates that locally grown foods will generate $7 billion in sales this year, up from $5 billion in 2007.

Organic vs. Natural … and the difference.

Does it matter whether your produce is grown organically or naturally, that your livestock and animal products have this certification? To a rising number of us, our pocketbooks are answering a resounding yes. According the Nutrition Business Journal, US food and beverage sales of organic and natural products surged into the double-digit growth sector, reaching over $28.2 billion in 2006. Yes … billion.

Obviously, it matters. The difference between the two is this from the USDA.

The USDA requires natural meat and poultry to be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and ingredients. These products must be minimally processed in a method that does not fundamentally change them. Foods labeled “natural” are not regulated except for meat and poultry and are not subject to government controls. “Minimally processed” means free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers.

Organic refers not only to the food itself, but also to how it was produced. They must be grown and processed using farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without using synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

There is a national list of more than 200 permissible nonorganic additives that are allowable, however, like synthetic amino acids used to “plump chickens,” that can be used in compliance with the “Certified Organic” label.

According to the USDA website, products labeled “organic,” must meet the following criteria. These stipulations, however, apply only to farms producing more than $5,000 in organic food sales. This would not apply to smaller, local farms and coops we might find at Farmer’s Markets.

Foods with the “USDA Organic” label mean they are 100% organic, barring of course the over 200 permissible additives. Only foods in the categories “100% organic” and “organic” may display the USDA Organic Seal. Other foods with varying levels of organic ingredients may be labeled as follows:
  • “100% organic” - single ingredient such as a fruit, vegetable, meat, milk and cheese (excludes water and salt).
  • “Organic” - multiple ingredient foods which are 95 to 100% organic.
  • “Made with organic ingredients” - 70% of the ingredients are organic. Can appear on the front of package, naming the specific ingredients.
  • “Contains organic ingredients” - contains less than 70% organic ingredients.

A much trickier definition and concept for consumers. While sustainable agriculture is related in broad terms to the global economy, declining petroleum resources, and domestic food security; it is more about local farmers than it is about government agencies. While Congress once approved a 79-word definition of sustainable, it has yet to be developed into a program with explicit rules and penalties for violations.

ATTRA, National Sustainable Agricultural Information Services, defines “sustainable” agriculture as follows: “Sustainable agriculture is one that produces abundant food without depleting the earth’s resources or polluting its environment. It is agriculture that follows the principles of nature to develop systems for raising crops and livestock that are, like nature, self-sustaining. Sustainable agriculture is also the agriculture of social values, one whose success is indistinguishable from vibrant rural communities, rich lives for families on the farms, and wholesome food for everyone. But in the first decade of the 21st Century, sustainable agriculture, as a set of commonly accepted practices or a model farm economy, is still in its infancy—more than an idea, but only just.”

While “sustainable” is truly the label du jour, it can be our most difficult to discern and to regulate. Labeling something as “sustainable” then means you are regulating intentions, subjectively determined. It isn’t just about outcome and process, it’s also about belief and conviction. And those beliefs and convictions of both the producers and the regulators.

As the spring rains give way to a summer sun that will warm our local farm fields, enticing abundant crops full of nutrients that will not only enrich ourselves, but our family and loved ones; and our excitement grows as we watch seedlings mature; and wait excitedly for local produce to soon hit our markets; let us remind ourselves of lessons mayhap learned years ago in a sterile classroom about marketing manipulations.

And as our country ensures these challenging economic times, food dollars are at a premium. It is more important than ever that we are mindful and considerate of those dollars.

Labels matter. Nutrition matters. Local economies matter. Your family’s health, both physical and economic, matters most of all. When you spend extra for local or organic or natural or sustainable, make sure it really is. If you can’t buy from a local trusted farmer; be informed, ask questions, read labels … know to what and to whom you are entrusting your resources. Be savvy and be smart.
See you at the Farmer’s Market.

Helpful Resources: Natural and Organic Foods PDF by USDA

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