Navigating Food Labels


In last week's post on small ways to go eco-friendly, I mentioned that eating organic foods. What exactly does that mean? When it comes to food labeling in the US, what does "natural", "healthy", and "fresh" mean? I've dug around the FDA's website to bring you the info straight from the regulatory source. However if you have read any of Michael Pollan's books, the only way to really know if your food is fresh, natural and organic in the colloquial sense is to know the farmers who produce your food. Depending on where you live and what your budget is, this is much easier said then done. Either way, it's helpful to know what the jaragon means. The definitions are included below along with links to their regulatory sources. My commentary is at a minimum. 

Fresh: "The food is in a raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or preservation, except: The addition of approved waxes or coatings; The post-harvest use of approved pesticides; The application of a mild chlorine wash or mild acid wash on produce; or The treatment of raw foods with ionizing radiation not to exceed the maximum dose of 1 kiloGray." (Regulation 21 CFR 179.26, 21 CFR 101.95(a) and 21 CFR 101.95(c)) 

Healthy: "An implied nutrient content claim on the label or in labeling of a food that is useful in creating a diet that is consistent with dietary recommendations if the food meets the conditions for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients." (Regulation 21 CFR 101.65(d)(2))

Natural:"FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances." Any one else find that a little scary?

Organic: The US Department of Agriculture oversees the National Organic Program which regulates the use of "organic" in food labeling. The full definition of organic is dozens, if not hundreds, of pages long listed in Title 7 Subtitle B Chapter I Subchapter M Part 205. The keys take aways from a consumer's perspective are these:

-"The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances." (205.203)

-"The producer must not use any fertilizer or composted plant and animal material that contains a synthetic substance not included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production;-" (205.203)

-For organic livestock: "Year-round access for all animals to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight, suitable to the species, its stage of life, the climate, and the environment...Continuous total confinement of any animal indoors is prohibited." (205.239) Yup, that's not required for non-organic livestock. I've got my Edvard Much face on right now. 

-For organic livestock: "When preventive practices and veterinary biologics are inadequate to prevent sickness, a producer may administer synthetic medications." (205.238)

Common uses of the word organic

100 percent organic: This term speaks for itself

Organic: "Must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) not less than 95 percent organically produced raw or processed agricultural products."

Made with organic ingredients: "Must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients"

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