Food Answers Part 1

Certified Organic Food

“Certified Organic” means the food is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that aren’t approved by the USDA. The organic food cannot be treated with any chemicals, preservatives, colorings, or artificial additives post-harvest. To be labeled “organic,” the food must be produced free of sewage sludge, bioengineering, and ionizing radiation.

If a farmer makes more than $5,000 off of their organic food or livestock they must be certified by a third party USDA accredited agent. To obtain certification the farmer must keep a detailed record of practices and materials used, pass farm inspections, and pass periodic residue testing. The soil must be free of pesticides and fertilizers for 3 years before gaining certification. If a farmer makes less than $5,000 they do not have to be certified, but must follow the same steps. An $11,000 fine is issued on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic when the product does not follow the NOP regulations.


The USDA says products labeled as “100% organic” can only contain organically produced ingredients other than water and salt.

Products labeled as just “organic” must consist of 95% of the ingredients organic and the 5% must come from nonorganic ingredients that have been approved by the National Organic Standards Board.

“Made with organic ingredients” means that a product must be made with at least 70% organic ingredients but generally isn’t regulated.

It is best to buy only products with the USDA organic seal which is either green or black if you do choose to purchase organically. It may not be perfect, but it is the safest label that you can buy.

Be sure to check the label and make sure the organic food you are purchasing is made in the U.S. and not China. Organic food produced in China follow different regulations and may not mean much (PRI). China makes up 12% of the world’s “organically farmed” land, though only 30% of those follow the USDA/NOP standards. Dr. Sears has an amazing guide to labels on his website:

Natural Foods

Most people believe they are doing the next best thing by purchasing “all natural” foods. Majority will spend the extra dollar on “all natural” juices and ice cream (top 2 fakers) because they think it is better than the conventional and less expensive than the organic. But, unfortunately that’s not true. “All natural” food means absolutely nothing.

There are no regulations or rules for anything labeled: “natural,” “pure,” “sustainable,” “free range,” or “locally-grown.” The FDA doesn’t define any of these so they cannot be regulated. Organic Consumers Association says, “natural typically means conventional with a green veneer.” They also go on to say that labeling “all natural” is a marketing tool disguising unhealthy and unsustainable food and farming practices. Most “natural” and conventional products are mass produced on large industrial farms that are highly polluting plus chemical and energy intensive. Very far from all natural in my opinion. Though, most biochemist will say that plastic is organic because it is derived from petroleum and contains carbon. So I guess it depends upon who you ask.

Meat is the only “natural” label regulated, though it is loose in terms. According to the USDA, a “natural” label means that meat contains “no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.” Most “natural” meats aren’t fed a vegetarian organic diet and are kept in closed quarters. Hormones and antibiotics can be given to the animal. And just because a label says “free range” doesn’t mean the animal is out happily grazing the farm. Most chicken coops only have a door and the animals are too scared to venture out, as they are flocking birds. That term is also not regulated.

You will find ingredients like high fructose corn syrup (which will soon be called corn sugar), partially hydrogenated oils, modified corn starch, natural flavors that aren’t listed, dyes, autolyzed yeast extract, xantham gum, gum arabic, fructose, alkalized cocoa, artificial caramel coloring, and numerous others on “all natural” products. Also beware of foods labeled, “made with real” fruit, vegetables, and grains. By law, they do not have to list how much “real” food is in the product.

Locally Grown

Unfortunately there are no regulations for locally grown items. Unless you are buying from the actual farmer, you might not be purchasing true local products. U.S. Today reports that Walmart claims locally grown is within the same state while Whole Foods claims within 7 hours of the store. Some even consider “locally grown” within a day’s driving distance or just in the U.S.

The size of the “local” farm also makes a huge difference. Ham farm in NC takes up over 7,000 acres. They mainly grow sweet potatoes and tobacco, but also use 600 acres for bell peppers, 400 acres of cucumbers, and have smaller fields of cabbage, cantaloupe, watermelons, beans, and peas. To meet their customers demand, they also buy from 20-30 other farmers. So you aren’t even guaranteed to be buying from their farm. Most commercialized farmers make as much quantity as possible without being too concerned about the quality.

That’s why regressive farming has become more popular with small farmers. They prefer to farm slowly like nature had intended. They take their produce and meat to local markets and cut out the middle man. This is where you can get true fresh produce. Most regressive farmers do not want to use pesticides and herbicides- mainly because of the cost, but also because of the quality.

Purchasing from small local family farms, regional farm co-ops, and CSA’s can be beneficial to everyone. By purchasing local you are reducing carbon emissions and keeping the air clean. Buying directly from local farmers leads to more state tax funds that get reinvested into your community. Analysts have claimed buying locally can solve state budget deficits. Some farmers markets will soon be accepting food stamps so everyone can benefit from eating healthier. Many nutritionists claim you eat healthier by eating locally because you eat what is in season. And if you are eating local organic, you are eating chemical free. Buying “locally” doesn’t mean you are purchasing pesticide free produce. So be sure to check with the farmer about their practices.

I love buying locally because I learn how my produce and meats were raised. I enjoy having a relationship with my farmer and knowing their beliefs. I like being able to ask what the produce was treated with and learning about their land. Though, I have to admit I will only purchase organic local foods. Especially in meats and dairy.

Lots of consumers choose to purchase local foods because they think it is safer. But many food born illnesses go undiscovered from local foods because not enough people get sick to notice. Matthew Regusci from Primus (testing) Laboratories says many small producers have good food-safety practices but haven’t purchased audits, which can cost hundreds of dollars. “The vast majority of food safety is common sense,” Regusci says. “Are there a few small idiots out there messing things up for everybody? Yes. But there are big idiots out there messing things up, too.”

Click Here for Part 2


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