How to Read a Food Label Properly: Organic, Whole Grains, Gluten Free, Grass Fed?

Nutrition Label

Food marketers are clever.

In the quest for the almighty dollar, companies continually find new ways to make you feel like buying their product is the best possible choice.  For a while, it was all about bigger, better, greasier, more delicious.

But as our country became bigger and bigger, the topic of conversation turned to “how can we get healthier?”

So marketers had to change up their tactics.  Instead of promoting the unhealthy, they started rebranding and repackaging their products with healthy buzzwords to make you THINK you’re eating healthier, while still making incredibly unhealthy products that keep you addicted to them.

That Lucky Charms Leprechaun is full of sh**!  If anybody thinks that sugary cereal is healthy because the box says “made with heart healthy whole grains” they’re kidding themselves. But making the healthy choice isn’t always so obvious:

  • Is buying organic really that much better for me?
  • Does “no sugar added” mean it’s automatically better than the ones with sugar?
  • What’s the difference between free range, grass-fed, vegetarian fed?

Today, I’m gonna teach you how to not get scammed by food labels so you can make healthier decisions when you go shopping…with the added bonus of being able to stick it to the Empire.

This is a monster article, and is meant more of a resource for reference, rather than a quick “hey that’s cool!” skim before moving onto videos of cats.

What does organic Mean?

Fruit and Veggies

“Organic, so hot right now.” – Jacobim Mugatu

Everybody and their mother is rushing out to buy organic things these days.  Organic means natural. Nature is healthy. Therefore Organic is healthy, yes?

…to an extent, but not necessarily.

In order for something to be considered “organic”, it must pass a series of government checklists:

Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and diary products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones. 

 Along with that, there are three different “tiers” of Organic Labels:

1) 100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients.

2) Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients.

3) Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30%, including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

So, if you see something labeled “100% organic,” then you can be sure you’re getting ingredients that are naturally occurring, or if it’s from an animal then it did not take antibiotics or growth hormones.

[Side note: Don’t confuse this with “All Natural” – there’s no regulation behind this term, and thus means diddly squat]

Back to organics! Organic doesn’t automatically mean healthy.  I mean, you can buy organic cookies and organic cereal, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for you. Sure, they don’t have High Fructose Corn Syrup (a big no-no), but they can still contain a ton of sugar and empty calories.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, I try to buy organic whenever possible, especially if it’s with a fruit with a soft outside.

Here are 10 foods you should always buy organic (when possible), and 7 Foods where conventional is okay.

This might surprise you: a huge portion of “organic” food companies are owned by massive conglomerates (PDF)!

Best advice: Use your best judgment, eat real food, and buy what you can afford without driving yourself crazy.  Don’t try to fool yourself when you are buying cookies and ice cream that are “organic.”  They might beat the alternative, but that’s kind of like saying “I enjoy getting punched in the face because it’s better than being punched in the crotch.”

Bet you didn’t think you’d get a crotch analogy in an article about food labels, did ya?

Now, speaking of organics…

What about organic milk?

milk

Here’s what is required of milk in order for it to receive the “Certified Organic” Certification:

  • At least 30 percent of the food they eat must be grazed at pasture during a grazing season of at least 120 days;
  • No antibiotics or growth hormones may be used;
  • All feed must be organic;
  • No meat or poultry by-products can be in the feed.

A note about the “antibiotics or growth hormones”  Almost all regular dairy cows these days are not treated with growth hormones.  Though cows, especially cows that are fed grain-based diets, tend to get sick more frequently than grass-fed cows and thus are pumped full of antibiotics to keep them healthy.

Although some have determined there’s no difference between organic and regular milk, I still aim to buy organic should the price difference not be TOO drastic – to support farmers that take the time to get “Organic” certified.  That being said, I’m not a stickler about it, as it may not be worth it (see below).

Why is organic milk so expensive?  Yes, it requires more money to upkeep a farm for organic cows. However organic milk is also perceived as a higher quality and thus a premium price is placed on it. Due to the length of time required for a farm to receive organic certification (3 years!), supply of organic milk is small compared to regular, and thus the price is driven up.

A note from a farmer just came in: Here’s why you shouldn’t waste any money on organic milk. If the farm that produces the milk is certified organic, cool, what about the adjacent farm?  Wind blows seed, artificial fertilizer and any other loose product, and if that is on an organic farm by result of wind, as far as the government is concerned it is still organic, but from a health stand point, technically, that is no longer organic, also the pasteurization is the same regardless of the branding.  Just a word from a farmer.

What about raw milk?  You’ve probably heard a lot about raw milk in the news recently, as government agencies are doing everything they can to shut down farms that sell unpasteurized dairy.  Why? In a 2012 report on raw milk, the CDC stated that before pasteurization, dairy was dangerous, and “raw milk was a common source of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, diphtheria, severe streptococcal infections, typhoid fever, and other foodborne illnesses.”

However, in the view of a health blogger that I have come to trust, raw milk has been proven to be safe and  raw milk is the only REAL milk.

Final recommendation: Minimize dairy consumption to begin with, consider raw dairy if you are up for it, buy organic if it makes you feel better, understanding it might not be much better than the regular stuff.

Chicken Labels

chickens

It seems there are a million different labels for buying chicken these days…

  • Free range!
  • All natural!
  • Pasture raised!
  • Organic!
  • Vegetarian fed! 

I reached out to a family friend with 30 years of experience in the chicken industry to help cut through the crud and get the real answers on these:

Let’s break these down and decide which labels are worth checking out

Free Range:  Ultimately, this only means that the chicken must have “access to the outside.”  A.K.A., a door cut in the side of a house that has some area for the chicken to ‘range” should they so choose.  Of course, most of these chickens are already raised in captivity and never once set foot outside.  This is not regulated well and thus oftentimes there are no differences between a regular chicken and a free range chicken.  If animal’s rights issues are important to you, a more strict classification below would better suit you.

All Natural: Virtually all chickens raised in America are “all natural” by USDA definition. No chicken company adds hormones or steroids to their chickens; it’s not allowed. The “all natural” label isn’t regulated and doesn’t mean anything.

Organic: USDA has the following requirements for labeling “organic” chicken:  The number of birds raised in a house is about half of “normal” chicken houses.  Only organic feed is allowed (chicken feed is 65% corn, and 30% soymeal. The other 5% of normal chicken feed is bonemeal, feather meal, blood meal and vitamins. Organic chicken cannot receive the vitamins or medicine that normal chickens do. Normal chickens are also vaccinated as day old-chicks, while organic chickens are not. Therefore the mortality rate for organic is 2-3 times normal chickens, hence the increased costs.

Pasture Raised: Ultimately, these birds are raised outside, as chickens would have existed back in the day.  They are allowed to eat whatever falls on the ground, be it bugs, worms, grubs, grass, bonemeal from previously decayed animals, and more.  They are not confined to a cage.  This would probably be your best bet, as the chickens get to spend the most time outdoors exploring compared to the other options.

How do you know for sure what your best bet is?  Try to find a local chicken farmer or visit your local farmer’s market and have a discussion with the people selling chicken. Find out how their chickens are raised and get to know them (the farmers, not the chickens, unless you’re in Portlandia).

Egg Labels

eggs

Now, if you’re looking to purchase the eggs from chickens rather than chickens themselves, you have an entire new set of labels to check out.

A lot of the definitions and descriptions from above remain, but there are a few other differences.

The below definitions are from the Humane Society:

Certified Organic: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet, free of antibiotics and pesticides (as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program). Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.

Free-range: Like above, the birds need access to outdoors to be considered “free range,” but there’s no regulation as to how much time (if any) is spent outdoors.

Certified Humane: The birds are uncaged inside barns but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.

Animal Welfare Approved: As the highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program, the birds are cage-free and continuous outdoor perching access is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Birds must be allowed to molt naturally. Beak cutting is prohibited.

Cage-Free: Hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting, and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is permitted.

Vegetarian-Fed: These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.  This only means they’re not outside eating non-vegetarian things…like bugs and remains of old animals (you know, like free animals do).

So, once again it looks like we have mostly 80% hype and 20% legit labeling.  Your best bet at a store? “Animal Welfare Approved” eggs if you care about the wellbeing of the chickens who lay the eggs…though I haven’t seen many of these on labels at my local grocery store.  “Free range” and “organic” aren’t necessarily indicative of the conditions the birds might have been brought up under.

Want to go even further?: Get your eggs from a local farmer or local farmers market that has a solid reputation.  Here’s the best recommendation from Food Renegade: Find a local egg supplier on sites like www.eatwild.com or www.localharvest.org, or check Craigslist!

Meat Labels

cows

Ahhhh, the most confusing of them all.

Is organic meat worth it?

What is grass fed?

What the heck does “Vegetarian-fed” mean?

It seems like there’s 18,000 types of meat labeling out there, so I’m gonna simplify the heck out of this for you.

Regardless of what the label says, unless it’s 100% “Grass-fed,” it’s not optimal.  Cows are ruminants, meaning they are meant to eat grass.  Unless specifically labeled as “grass-fed beef,” then that cow was likely forced to eat foods its stomach cannot handle (grains among other things) in order to fatten it up as quickly as possible for slaughter.

Factories feed cows as much grain as possible to get them as fat as possible as quickly as possible, even if the grains make the cow sick.   In order to keep the cow alive, they pump him/her full of antibiotics to keep them standing.

Not good.

Organic beef might be slightly better for you than regular beef (organic cows cannot be treated with antibiotics, they must have “access” to pasture (though for how long is not determined), but may still be fed organic grains.

If the beef is “grass fed” (but not specified as 100%), then it’s possible it was raised indoors with small access for a small amount of time to go out and “graze” – which oftentimes it chooses to ignore.  This is tough to determine when purchasing meat at a grocery store.

So, what’s a Rebel to Do?

Final Answer: 100% Grass-Fed Beef.  This stuff is the best possible option for you if you should choose to consume beef.  Unfortunately, this can quite cost prohibitive if you chose to buy it from a place like Whole Foods, as they know people who want the best will pay for the best.  

Instead, I recommend you check out EatWild and find a local farm in your area that raises grass-fed cows.  Yep, it’s more work, but in the grand scheme of things, absolutely worth it.  Too lazy for that? Have grass-fed meat delivered to your doorstep with Grassland Beef.  Reasonably priced and delivered right to you.

“But Steve I’m on a budget!”  Do the best you can, with what you have, where you are. If you are eating meat, eat the best available to you, and DON’T FREAK OUT. KEEP YOUR COMPOSURE! Any step in the right direction…is a step in the right direction.  As you make more changes, or as your situation improves, then you can start considering switching to organic/grass-fed/100% grass fed.

Okay! That concludes our meat, dairy, eggs, and organic write-up!

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ON PIGS AND BACON: I’ve got you covered there, too 🙂

Let’s move onto the newest marketing term that’s blowing up.

Gluten-Free

Gluten Free

The newest darling of the marketing game.

Thanks to an increase in people being diagnosed with celiac disease (and those who have learned they have general issues with digesting gluten), every food company is rushing to put out a gluten-free version of their best-selling unhealthy product.

What is gluten, you ask? It’s a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat, barley, rye, and other related species. Again and again, grains = bad.

So, all companies are creating “healthier” versions of their products that no longer contain gluten…or (my favorite), slapping a gluten-free label on things that never had gluten in them to begin with so they can jack up the price in the name of “health.”

For example, did you know you can buy gluten-free eggs?

Well, is gluten-free better for you?  Provided the food is actually labeled properly, gluten free foods would be beneficial to people who struggle digesting gluten. However, just like with “organic,” just because it’s gluten free does NOT mean it’s necessarily healthy for you.

Gluten free cookies are still cookies.  Gluten free waffles are still waffles.  Gluten free pizza is still pizza.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking those unhealthy foods are good for you; you’re still better off eating REAL foods whenever possible.

Instead of going on a “gluten free diet” to lose weight (and continuing to eat the same things), why not try a diet that will give you a better chance to succeed.  Just like going on a vegetarian diet doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy” (donuts are vegetarian!) gluten-free in and of itself is can still be unhealthy!

Final verdict: Worth the label if you’re gluten-intolerant, but do the research before you run off eating bagfuls of ‘healthy’ food.

Made with Whole Grains

whole grain

I love this one.

Ever since studies started popping up that whole grains were better for you than refined grains, marketing teams have gone out and slapped “Heart Healthy Whole Grains!” on everything they can.

Setting aside the fact that grains in general can wreak havoc on your dietary tract, and grains/sugar are the primary reason most people gain weight, whole grains might not be THAT much better than regular grains, and don’t necessarily help you live longer

But that doesn’t matter.  Marketers will do whatever they can to get their product in your hands, which is why these cereals are now labeled with “heart healthy whole grains!”

  • Kix
  • Trix
  • Count Chocula
  • Cinnamon Toast Crunch
  • Lucky Charms

Sure, these cereals might have a grain in them that is “whole grain,” but they also possess a crazy amount of sugar and other ingredients that are NOT good for you.

So, be smart.  Disregard the front of the label and check the ingredients and nutritional value on the back.  I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that if it came out of a box, it probably ain’t good for your heart.

No Sugar Added

sugar

This is another GEM of a marketing tactic.  

In an effort to make their food appear more healthy to health conscious individuals, companies have resorted to slapping this absolutely WORTHLESS tag on foods, deserts, and drinks.

Ignore it.

If you look at ice cream or juice that says “no sugar added,” it just means that after the initial creation of the product (which contains probably a boatload of sugar already)…no extra sugar was added. It still means it contains approximately one boatload of sugar.  It might have LESS sugar than other products in that category, and thus better for you (BOO SUGAR), but don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s actually GOOD for you.

Be smart. Read the back of the label. Understand that you’re eating something that probably isn’t healthy to begin with. Rather than eating buckets of the processed food that is promised to be ‘healthy,’ eat real food more often and then OCCASIONALLY go for the unhealthy stuff to stay on target.

What other SHADY labels have you seen?

thief

That should get you started.  Remember, this is a resource – don’t feel like you have to memorize it! And don’t freak out if you can’t afford the most expensive beef, eggs, and so on.  Do the best you can and make small improvements when you have the means to do so.

Every little bit counts!  So…

What other labels out there have you seen?

What terms have I missed? 

Any favorite ridiculous ones you’d like to share?

Leave a comment and I’ll add to this article as quickly as they come in.  Again, make sure you bookmark this one should you find yourself at the grocery store and unsure of who’s trying to take advantage of you with shady marketing.

For the Rebellion!

-Steve

###

Photo source: Label, organic fruiteggs, chickens, whole grain, milk, sugar, gluten free, thief

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100 thoughts on “How to Read a Food Label Properly: Organic, Whole Grains, Gluten Free, Grass Fed?

  1. I once saw fresh salmon marketed as “carb free!” I guess in case it wasn’t obvious?

  2. My favorite is “No Trans Fats”. That is an automatic red flag for me that the food has so much unhealthy fat, that this is the only thing they can put out there as a “health” benefit.

  3. My favorite is “Fat Free” which is pretty much a good indicator that a bunch of sugar has been added so it doesn’t lose flavor.

  4. “Sugar Free” usually means “Full of Artificial Sweeteners”. From my experience it is a combination of multiple artificial sweeteners as well.

  5. This is a piddly thing, but I’ve noticed Canada Dry Ginger Ale now puts “made from real ginger” on their labels. This, of course, could include using anything from actual honest-to-goodness ginger root (highly unlikely) to mega-processed extract of ginger.

  6. This is a piddly thing, but I’ve noticed Canada Dry Ginger Ale now puts “made from real ginger” on their labels. This, of course, could include using anything from actual honest-to-goodness ginger root (highly unlikely) to mega-processed extract bearing no relation to real ginger.

  7. I think some labels are to help people new to a certain type of eating. Like when low-fat was all the craze, seeing it on the front of some foods was actually helpful. (I know, let’s pretend that era didn’t exist, but it did). I think as people move into eliminating gluten, they don’t always know what has gluten and what doesn’t. So there are times I’ll look at something, maybe I find a wild-caught fish but it has a seasoning on it. “Great, it probably has gluten in it.” So in those cases it’s nice.

    Beyond that, for those with Celiac, “gluten-free” also means the product wasn’t produced in a factory with other gluten-containing foods. For someone just intolerant (like me), that little bit doesn’t matter. For someone with Celiac, it might.

    I also hate the way the food industry figures out what a prominent health promoter suggests, and finds a way to be unclear on their product. For example, I’ve heard feeding chickens a certain diet makes their yolks more yellow. So it’s misleading to those who are looking for a yellow yolk because Michael Pollan suggested it as a marker of a better egg.

    I hate buying chicken and beef at the store. 🙁 And when I buy something at a farmer’s market, there’s always some naysayer standing behind me saying, “That farmer could be lying about it being organic/pastured/100% grass-fed, etc.” I hate that food has turned into a ponzi scheme.OK, maybe not a ponzi scheme. But it feels very smarmy.

  8. Just like you can get pasture raised chicken, you can buy pasture raised eggs! They are much better than organic or any other kind of egg. Just compare the yolks and see how much deeper the shade of yellow the pastured eggs are. Lately, I’ve seen pasture raised eggs in the regular supermarket!

  9. Fairly random:

    Many people (or maybe just around NYC) are under the impression that kosher meat and poultry is somehow healthier. However, because a LOT of salt is used in the process of removing blood from kosher meat and poultry (http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/82678/jewish/Koshering-Meat.htm), kosher meat and poultry actually has a rather high sodium content (http://www.goodguide.com/products/339834-empire-kosher-organic-boneless).

  10. There are so many things wrong with the processed boxed foods out there today. You really should not rely on what it says on the front of the box as they are self regulated. Always always always read the ingredient list! Learn what to look for. Just because it says no trans fats doesn’t mean there aren’t any in there. There are so many names for various ingredients that you really have to be careful. I think there are over 40 different names for MSG that are used. That’s just crazy! It’s really all about profit and not about health.

  11. Steve: I think you do your readers a disservice by advocating for raw milk. Louis Pasteur didn’t invent pasteurization to make money, and while sanitary conditions on the whole have improved since his time, there are very good reasons for people to continue buying pasteurized milk in the store. If people want to go out and find dairy farmers who are militant about cleanliness and from whom you know where the milk has been, at what temperature, and for how long, they can probably safely drink raw milk, but it has a far higher incidence of illness than eggs or meat.

  12. My favorite has always been “not from concentrate” on juices or 100% juice but they still find ways to sneak other stuff in there after all.

  13. You seem to be preaching to the choir here, but I’d like a bit more information. You’ve made a lot of claims about what’s better for you, what’s bad, but can you show some support for that? As a scientist, I tend to be wary of people passing judgment without proof. And at least in regards to food, as I’m sure you have noticed, people tend to go a bit crazy denouncing and supporting things without basis. Show me that it actually does provide some health benefit, or that it has been declared dangerous. (It shouldn’t be too hard to provide sources, since you have obviously done your research)

    I saw someone claim that organic strawberries were /so/ much better than non-organic strawberries. I did the same research you apparently did on what is required to be declared “organic” and, ‘lo and behold, there are still all sorts of nasty things they can add to their fruit without resorting to synthetics. Just because something is synthesized doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better than something natural.

    I will say that a lot of your suggestions, especially the ones about eating excess sugar, starch, and fats) are common sense, but can be hard to actually follow. A key point, though, is everything in moderation. Pasture-raised eggs are healthier? Great! But if you eat too many eggs (and especially if you are predisposed to heart problems) your cholesterol is going to go through the roof. http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/7301/description/Reevaluating_Eggs_Cholesterol_Risks

  14. Also, if you want to be environmentally friendly, you should really try to find MSC labels on your marine products. It means it has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (http://www.msc.org/) that it was fished in a sustainable manner (i.e., not overexploited, without damaging habitat, with enough accountability and enforcement to prevent unregulated, unreported, and illegal (UUI) fishing, etc.) I know there are some labels out there for aquaculture as well, but I’m not sure which ones are legitimate.

  15. hey Lawdog!

    Thanks for the comment! In my research, I found that the “illness” incidences were far more overstated than truth, and actually far lower than many other options for consumption.

    That being said, anything and everything seems to kill you these days, which is why I wanted to bring to attention the raw milk from a local farmer as an option so that people can make their own informed decision. Remember, one of the rules of the rebellion is to question everything!

    Cheers!

    -Steve

  16. hey Daniel!

    Thanks for the comment.

    i would argue on the eggs from that cholesterol from food (eggs) and your dietary cholesterol aren’t nearly as closely linked as we’ve all been lead to believe! On top of that, cholesterol is an important part of keeping our body functioning properly. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/cholesterol/

    Cholesterol has been vilified just like fat. I encourage people who are changing their diet to get blood work done before and after and make their decisions after based on that, if they have the means to do so. Self-experimentation and doing what works best for you is the ultimate.

    I will tell you i’m not a dietitian nor do I consider myself an expert of anything. I’m one dude doing my best to help share my thoughts and research from the perspective of a normal nerd trying to make sense of this world. I try to share as much information in an easy-to-digest manor that allows those looking for more information to follow the rabbit holes and spend 6 days researching the nuances of each. For everybody else, I do what I can to make it simple for them to try and make more informed decisions.

    Cheers brother!

    -Steve

  17. Thanks for your reply, Steve! You might want to read the review I linked. The study basically agrees with you that eggs have been unjustly vilified, /except in the case of people predisposed to high cholesterol/. It also mentions a few benefits of eating eggs as well, such as increasing certain pigments in the blood which are known to improve eye-health and promoting good cholesterol.

    As you mentioned in an earlier response, one of the rules of the rebellion is to question everything. It would just help if you could cite your sources (like you did above). I want to eat healthy, but I also want my efforts to be put where they can do me the most good. Grad school isn’t very forgiving with time or money.

  18. True that it can have a high(er) sodium content, but taste tests (e.g., Cook’s Illustrated) have shown that kosher chickens taste better because they are essentially dry-brined. If you’re cooking your own chicken, the higher sodium content you would get from this process really won’t matter for most people, while the deliciously seasoned meat is a bonus.

    Obviously, if you’re worried, check with your doctor. But most experts say that the sodium issue is importantly mainly when eating lots of processed foods (which have salt pumped into them alongside the fat and sugar). If you cook most of your own food, it would be pretty hard (read: gross) to add enough salt to make a major dent in your health.

  19. I’ve been eating a lot of eggs recently and found all the different labels very confusing. However, I discovered an excellent resource that rates different brands of organic eggs on things such as amount of space provided to hens: http://www.cornucopia.org/organic-egg-scorecard/

    Interestingly, these ratings are not always correlated to cost – some of the more expensive egg brands come out worse in terms of how they treat hens!

    Regarding raw milk, this is something I’m curious about and thinking about switching to. I’m no scientist, but recent studies suggesting it is a low-risk food sound pretty convincing: http://online.wsj.com/article/PR-CO-20130611-909875.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    I’m sure the introduction of pasteurization made sense in a historical context (it was introduced against a backdrop of concerns that poorer urban folks were getting low-quality unsafe milk and it was easier to pasteurize everything to guarantee minimum standards rather than regulate suppliers) but that does not necessarily mean it is the best option today.

  20. Perhaps “All Natural” or “No Artificial…”

    These labels can be applied to ANYTHING. Refined sugar isn’t “artificial”. Neither is soya lecithin. Or xantham gum. They’re all “derived from natural products”. *eye roll*

  21. I don’t want to kick a wasp’s nest, but I want to bring attention to one major distinction that tends to muddy the waters in the organics debate: what is a “health benefit”?

    I try to eat organic foods primarily because I don’t like the idea of pesticides in my food. That’s the major “health benefit” that it boils down to, although there are other benefits as well (tending to eat mostly in-season, supporting local and smaller farmers/food producers, perception of better taste).

    However, I often hear or read arguments about organic foods being no “healthier” than non-organics, and it depends entirely upon what that means. There is no conclusive evidence that organic strawberries, for example, contain more vitamins or antioxidants than non-organic strawberries.

    Nor do I know of any organic proponents who eat organic strawberries because they think they’re getting more Vitamin C from them. It’s an argument that misses the point. (The Stanford study released last year stirred the pot a lot on this issue: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/16/science/stanford-organic-food-study-and-vagaries-of-meta-analyses.html?_r=0)

  22. Eva, it never even occurred to me that the taste would be different. Very cool!

    As far as the sodium thing, I just think that it is something many people do not realize. I suspect you are correct in implying that it is a non-factor for most people here.

    Also, I have added salt to a kosher steak, which is an EPIC FAIL (inedible).

  23. The best ones for me are the non-related ones, there was a campaign here in Mexico, that stated than one tortilla (from branded, enriched flour), has more vitamin C than an apple, that’s irrelevant!, or low-fat, cholesterol-free bread, even some brand of bread used to state their “light” bread had 30% less calories per slice (about 25% ligher, in weight), it’s just a smaller slice!, no sugar (fructose, glucose and so onse).

    Also ingredient declarations where they cut the sugar into different kinds so it’s not the first ingredient on the list (like “water, apples, fructose, glucose, corn syrup. sugar and .02% sodium benzoate,”.) could be 75% sugar and still does not look like that!

  24. Right, but I would argue that farmers are still using whatever means necessary to ensure as large and high-quality a crop as possible, within the constraints prescribed by the USDA for organic foods. I believe that antibiotics and hormones in meat, for example, has been show to be a health risk when consumed by humans, and in that case I can understand eating only organic foods.

    However, those strawberries are a different matter. This is from the USDA website:

    “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml

    There are still pesticides on your strawberries. And there is still fertilizer being used to grow them. Are you confident that synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are necessarily more dangerous than natural pesticides and fertilizers? “Synthetic” is a scary word, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “worst for the environment” or “more dangerous to ingest.”

  25. “Are you confident that synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are necessarily more dangerous than natural pesticides and fertilizers?”

    I think there are two ways to answer this.

    First, I agree, semantically, that synthetic is not necessarily worse than natural, although when it comes to food… Frankly, knowing what I do about the materials often used as organic fertilizers (fish bone meal, animal manure), the answer for me is: YES, I am confident that I’d rather ingest some dung than some synthetic salt.*

    Second, the question of methodology (in farming or animal husbandry or whatever) is a big one. This is what Steve kept emphasizing in his post: the best, and often only, way to know what’s happening with your food is to have a personal interaction with the producer.

    Now, I can’t meet the farmer who produced every single piece of fruit I eat. (Well, I could, but…) What I can do, though, is make an educated guess and take a calculated risk. I know the reputations of many of the farms who supply my area. I can talk to the producers at the farmer’s market, and I have built a relationship with the farm that supplies my CSA box throughout the year. Like many, they have an open farm day each year when you can actually go visit and see how your food is produced. (Incidentally, joining a CSA is a great shortcut if you want to eat healthier: seasonal, organic produce delivered every week? BOOM.)

    *does that make me weird?

  26. You’re sort of making the jump from synthetic being chemicals to natural being dung and other old-fashioned farming tools. There /are/ naturally occurring chemicals that are extremely toxic, and I would have to search for the reference (I read it a few months ago) but I believe that some of those have been used as substitutes for synthetic pesticides.

    I completely agree, though, that if you have the means to find an organic farmer who doesn’t use such things, go for it! (Although, be wary that, while dung might not be too big of an issue for consumption, it can have huge consequences to the surrounding environment, particularly if the farm is near water sources) What I object to is the assumption “organic” means “safer and healthier than non-organic.”

    This isn’t the reference I had found before, but you might find it enlightening. It is also a short read and doesn’t have much scientific lingo: http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~lhom/organictext.html

  27. “If you look at ice cream or juice that says “no sugar added,”
    it just means that after the initial creation of the product (which
    contains probably a boatload of sugar already)…no extra sugar was added.
    It still means it contains approximately one boatload of sugar.”

    That made me laugh. ONE BOATLOAD!

  28. Instead of “better for you” when referring to processed foods with fewer or ‘better’ ingredients than the alternatives – We use the phrase “less junky” … My son just turned 4 and I’ve been packing his lunches and snacks for daycare for several months now as the given food at the facility is, of course, atrocious. He thinks enough now to ask if we can a “less junky” “(va)nilla wafer. (true story he asked that after school one day). And we work on that level all the time as he knows the difference between real food and processed and that the real food is always the better food, (just not always what he wants to eat when the other kids have the garbage in front of them).

  29. And they still use HFCS … before my self-evolution ginger ale was about the only soda I still drink … can’t touch it now, except for the occasional Jack&Ginger

  30. If something is made with partially hydrogenated oils, it is going to have trans fats in it, even if it is a small enough amount to fall under the federal regulation for allowing the “zero grams trans fat” label. You have to watch out for this in peanut butter especially.

  31. Twizzlers are labelled a “Low Fat Snack”. Yup, that definitely makes them good for you!

  32. Great resource! My favorite tricks label was on a bag of frozen peaches.the only ingredient was peaches. On the front of the bag in big letters it stated “trans fat free”. Thank you generic food company, good to know.

  33. Just in the interest of being a stickler – gluten free eggs can actually be helpfull to full-on Coeliacs as they can actually react to trace elements of gluten found in the eggs of hens fed a grain-heavy diet. Granted, people that sensitive are in the minority, but they are out there and I bet they are gratefull for GF eggs. Luckily, I’m nowhere near that sensitive!

  34. In France we have these “sugar free” candy where they replace the traditional white sugar with sugar alcohol. If you look at the nutrtion facts there are 96g of carbohydrate / 100g o_O.

    They do this because, and I quote “lesucre.com” : polyols are carbohydrates but not sugars. I never understood why they were allowed to do that.

  35. AW man ‘FAT FREE’ is my favourite! It should say something like, ‘Fat free dish that magically converts to fat inside your body’ because they’re always jammed with sugar

  36. I bought a packet of mixed nuts and under the allergy advice is said “may contain nuts”. I had my fingers crossed that it really did!!

  37. You missed my favorite – “A Naturally Fat Free Food!”. Last seen on Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, which now also notes that it’s gluten free too!

  38. Curiously enough, ginger ale is one of the easier drinks to brew. Google “Homemade ginger ale” and ask your friends to start saving 2 liter plastic bottles!

  39. Hi Steve! I looked at eatwild.com per your suggestion and I found 2 farms, both within 30 minutes of my house, that provide 100% grass-fed, open range, beef, turkey, and chickens. I also discovered a general store nearby that stocks local farm products and has a small restaurant that uses these products as well. Can’t wait to check them all out this weekend! Thanks for showing us that we have options to eat healthy and local.

  40. Thanks for this info. I wanted more information about seafood selection. I am also excited to check out the Monterey Bay Aquariam Seafood consumer guide ap.

  41. I agree with you about the labels being helpful sometimes, I find this especially helpful with HFCS

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