Food labeling is deceptive at best. If you are lucky enough or have the proper training you can possibly decipher the ingredients list, but the real challenge is in what to make of the boisterous claims on the package. One of the reasons we’ve committed to eating as many things local is that the food doesn’t come with labels. I am meeting the people who’ve grown it, butchered it and packaged it. I don’t have to wonder. And, if I have questions – I can get them answered right then or with a phone call.
Living local and meeting the maker of all your food is a very tall order, so processed foods and quick grabs are going to be inevitable fillers in your (at least mine!) pantry and fridge. Here’s a quick decoder for figuring out what’s what when it comes to the labels on your food.
Who can use it? Pretty much anyone
What does it mean? According to the FDA, there is no formal definition. But, it is generally accepted that the term can apply to foods that have no synthetic substances, artificial colors or flavors.
What questions are you left with? A lot of digging is needed before you can trust the label. I’ve seen some products that are really truly natural in the obvious sense of the word, but others have a laundry list of ingredients that are anything but “natural”. Buy it and trust it with a grain of salt.
Who can use it? Only certified organic producers and growers.
What does it mean? This term is highly regulated and the rules are clear. Products must be made without using herbicides, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and be non-GMO.
What questions are you left with? To obtain an organic label, foods must have 95% or more of their ingredients be organic. Not 100% of them. And, the treatment of the animals is not regulated, nor is the size of the farm.
Tidbit: There is such a thing as a 100% organic label and this is a regulated statement, too.
Who can use it? Anyone
What does it mean? Uh, anything. By definition it means “local”, but the distance is ambiguous. The Community Co-op where I do the majority of our shopping defines local as Washington and most often Whatcom or Skagit county. They clarify their local statements by adding the name and location of the farm to the displayed label. But, I’ve been in some big box stores where local is defined as grown/made in the USA! The beauty of our farmer’s market is that no growers or vendors are from farther than fifty miles away, so local is just that – close to home.
What does it leave you wondering? Just because it’s local (to wherever) doesn’t mean it wasn’t produced on a factory farm, is organic or is any way natural or sustainable.
Tidbit: In Vermont, the term is regulated and must mean “Made in Vermont” or “Made within 30 miles of where the product is sold”.