It’s Not Easy Being “Green”!
By Phil Lempert, iVillage.com
When Kermit first uttered this now famous line, he didn’t even imagine the implications for supermarket shopping. But now, as more of us want to do our fair share to protect the planet and ease the impact of products’ global footprint by choosing wiser, we need a bit of help to really understand what these labels do (and don’t) mean.
USDA Certified Organic – organic foods seem to be everywhere, but did you know there are different designations?
100 percent organic – Organic standards require that the land used to grow organic crops go through a three-year “transition period” to make sure the crops are free of synthetic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. All organic agriculture prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, irradiation, sewage sludge, and growth hormones, and no genetically modified organisms can be contained in anything labeled organic.
Organic – is defined by the USDA as containing 95 percent organic ingredients.
Made with organic – may be used on the front of the product label that contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Note: products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients are only allowed to list the organic items in the ingredient panel.
Oregon Tilth – you may have seen in addition to the USDA seal, another one for Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO). This seal is an internationally recognized symbol of organic integrity which some organic producers feel has even stricter standers than the federal rules. OTCO provides a system that combines strict production standards, on-site inspections, and legally binding contracts to protect the producers and buyers of organic products, to ensure that the agreed upon conventions of organic agricultural systems are being practiced not only by the growers or producers, but also by all the people who handle and process organic food, feed and fiber on its journey to the consumer.
You may have noticed that many products are now touting the fact that they are “local.”
Local – while there is no legal definition for what is and isn’t “local”, the general consensus seems to be that these foods are grown or processed within approximately 200 miles of your location – typically, somewhere you can drive to and from in one day.
One of the most overused, and confusing terms that first appeared on foods back in the 1940s is “all natural.”
Natural/ All Natural – the phrase “all natural” can mean just about anything; it actually has no nutritional meaning whatsoever and isn’t truly regulated by the FDA. Natural in most cases means unprocessed food that has undergone no or minimal processing and contains no additives such as preservatives or artificial coloring.
Labels, labels and more labels:
Cage-Free or Free-Range – is not a health claim — this just means that the chickens are not locked in cages, and are “free” to roam. “Free-range” means the chickens are allowed to roam outdoors. Read the label carefully and look for more detail; sometimes “cage-free” eggs come from hens packed side by side in massive sheds with access to the outdoors.
Grass Fed – The Department of Agriculture has announced standards that would for the first time allow meat to be labeled as grass fed only if it came from animals that ate nothing but grass after being weaned. But the trade association representing many raisers of grass-fed livestock, which has long sought regulation of labeling, criticized the standards, because they do not restrict the use of antibiotics and hormones and do not require grass-fed animals to live on pastures year round. The rules, which take effect November 15, 2007 would require animals to eat nothing but grass and stored grasses like hay, and to have access to pasture during the growing season, which is defined as the time from last frost to first frost. In some places that could mean from as late as May to as early as October. The new standards require growers to have their farm and records inspected by the Agriculture Department before they could use a “U.S.D.A. Process Verified” seal. Meat could also be labeled as grass-fed, but without the seal, if the growers submit documents showing their animals were raised according to the standards.
Fair Trade – Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based model of international trade which promotes the payment of a fair price as well as social and environmental standards in areas related to the production of a wide variety of goods. The movement focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries, most notably handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit etc. Fair trade’s strategic intent is to deliberately work with marginalized producers and workers in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability to security and economic self-sufficiency.
Food allergies are on the rise, with almost 10 million people now suffering from some reaction!
As of January 2006, all food products must clearly say on the package if they contain any of the foods that are responsible for most allergies: milk, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, wheat, egg, crustacean shellfish or fish. And with more than 170 foods already identified as allergens, it’s critical to read not only the front of the label carefully, but also each of the ingredients. One troubling designation is when you see the words “may contain” which is an unregulated label which is little more than a safety net for what’s called unintentional “cross-contamination” of a food product. That is, a chocolate bar may not be made with peanuts, but it may have been contaminated with a trace amount of peanut because it was produced on the same manufacturing line as a peanut candy bar.
Gluten Free – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is recommending that voluntary standards be established for the first time that would govern how gluten-free products are sold and labeled. The first draft of the FDA proposal suggests that “companies may label foods ‘gluten-free’ if they don’t contain wheat, barley, rye or their hybrids, or if they contain fewer than 20 parts per million gluten.” Currently, some companies use the label to describe products that are naturally gluten-free, such as fruits or meat — which fuels the deepening nutrition confusion taking place in our grocer’s aisles. Under the FDA’s proposal, that would be misbranding. There is also confusion about cross-contamination, the gluten contained in oats, and also that modified food starch often contains gluten. A food with a “gluten-free” label may not be gluten free at all. Such products may contain trace amounts of the wheat protein — enough to trigger a reaction in some people.
Dairy Free – “Free” labels, such as “peanut free” and “gluten free,” aren’t regulated by the FDA. “Dairy free” can be particularly tricky. On the front, a product may say “dairy free,” but on the back, casein/milk may be listed under ingredients. Examples of food advertised as “dairy free” that may contain milk: coffee whiteners, whipped toppings, imitation cheeses and some soft-serve ice creams.
And one of our favorite supermarket secrets is in the produce department!
The “PLU” label is that annoying little numbered sticker that is now on every piece of produce you buy. That’s called a “produce look up” (PLU) number that is designed to help the cashier properly identify the item. But it also has a secret code: Organic adds a ’9′ in front of the four digit PLU code. Example: an organically grown standard yellow banana would be ’94011′ and genetically engineered foods add an ’8′ in front of the four digit PLU code. Example: A genetically engineered standard yellow banana would be ’84011.’