Four Food Buzzwords and What They Really Mean

“All natural”

“Locally grown”

“But it’s organic”

“I only eat grass-fed beef”

We’ve all encountered these phrases, whether they came up during conversation or were printed across the produce bin at the grocery store. Do you really know what they mean?

Photo credit: Amazon.com\
Photo credit: Amazon.com

Natural– There’s not really an official definition for that “natural” box of granola bars in your cupboard. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a “natural” label may be used for meat, poultry, and egg products that were minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. They further explain that the natural label “does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.” So those granola bars with the “natural” oats? Just a buzzword to get you to buy the product.

Locally-grown– While the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act defines local food a product that has traveled fewer than 400 miles or stayed within the state of it’s original origin. In other words, a tomato would be considered local if it’s grown in your state or within 400 miles of where you are purchasing the tomato.

Many people like to shop at farmers markets because most of the produce available has been grown by local and regional farmers who travel to the farmers market. Some states promote food products grown and processed in their state as locally grown as a point of pride. Just remember that “local” could be up to 400 miles away.

Organic– Organically-raised food essentially means that the food has been grown or raised without the use of synthetic pesticides. Organic farmers are still allowed to use some pesticides, though, so it’s not always entirely pesticide-free. [A pesticide is an agent that kills weeds (herbicide), diseases (fungicide), or harmful insects (insecticide).] Organic farmers must abide by certain rules set forth by the USDA in order to be certified organic and to have that green seal on their product.

Grass-fed– Grass-fed beef indicates that the animal received most of its nutrition from grass (or hay) throughout its life. It does not mean that the animal was not treated with antibiotics if it was sick or that the grass was not treated with pesticides. Beef that is not labeled “grass-fed” usually means that the cows received a lot of nutrition from other sources, like corn and other grains, in addition to grass and hay.

Regardless of what food you prefer to buy, it’s important to understand what the labels in the supermarket mean. Having choices in what we purchase is a reflection of how far along we’ve come in the agriculture industry. All farmers– organic farmers, conventional farmers, farmers that grow vegetables for farmers markets, farmers that raise grass-fed beef or free-range chickens, and farmers that raise lots of animals in one place– are important to the structure of today’s agriculture industry.

We have choices in what we consume, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for someone else to have a different opinion. So buy those natural granola bars if that’s the kind of granola bars you enjoy. Just don’t discount others for their food choices.

Sources: ams.usda.gov, ers.usda.gov.

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