The Call, Column 50 – “Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?”: Deciphering Food Label Claims

31 07 2016

(July 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?: Deciphering Food Label Claims

            Because variety is the spice of life, I’ve decided to break up the series of renewable energy technologies, alternating them with some other columns that I have planned about gardening and food topics.

Today, in preparation for the Independence Day holiday, I want to arm you with the knowledge you need to navigate the tricky world of food labels and claims, in order to make the best decisions possible about the types of foods to buy. There are a whole range of buzzwords used on and around food products, to make us feel good about purchasing them. Some of these are strictly regulated (like “organic”), while others are essentially meaningless (“all-natural”), and others, if you ask the right questions, mean a whole lot more than even organic (truly “sustainable”).

Agricultural Methods

(beyond-organic/sustainable > organic > responsible agriculture > non-GMO > natural)

            These buzzwords apply to both plant and animal agriculture. Let’s start with the least valuable and work our way up.

Natural. This word is essentially meaningless in a marketing sense, not regulated by the government or actually applicable to any concrete agricultural method. It has been adopted by large food companies for precisely this reason: it makes people feel good about the foods they buy without requiring much actual attention to food quality on the part of the manufacturer. What the FDA does state officially, is that it won’t object to the use of this term when it is used to designate the absence of artificial ingredients – colors, flavors, preservatives, and other additives – which makes it a bare-bones indicator of suitability for human consumption.

Non-GMO. This one is a tough for me. I am a strong proponent of GMO labeling and, if you’ve read a couple of my past columns, generally against the use of genetic engineering in agriculture because it produces little value for the consumer (or even the responsible farmer), yet introduces an uncomfortable level of risk to everyone involved, and the environment. That being said, this label does little more than “natural” in designating good agricultural methods or food quality. It’s often used on foods for which there isn’t a genetically-modified alternative anyway (non-GMO olive oil, anyone?). And even if not, it tends to be used in order to give consumers the same feel-good sentiment as organic, despite being essentially unregulated and saying nothing about toxic residues, synthetic additives, growing methods, animal welfare, environmental effects, or health in any other way.

Honestly, I also find it a bit disturbing when people equate non-GMO with sustainable agriculture and use it as their sole metric of food quality, when it is by no means the only agricultural issue, nor the most important. The overuse of this label exacerbates that problem.

Responsible agriculture. This one isn’t as much a buzzword as an umbrella of ideas on the spectrum, between industrial agriculture at one end and truly sustainable at the other. It is useful when you can glean more detailed information about a food product either by asking the farmer herself or from a particularly informational food company website, and is generally what you’re looking at when it’s clear that the farmers and manufacturers pay honest attention to agricultural methods in order to reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, genetic engineering, and unhealthy food additives, and provide for environmental and animal welfare. It includes things like IPM (integrated pest management, where pesticides are used as strategically and minimally as possible), GAP (good agricultural practices) certification, and other similar methods that can be determined by asking your farmer. Only if it’s part of a wider set of methods, I would happily put “non-GMO” into this category as well.

Organic. This is probably the biggest buzzword of all, but is actually pretty strictly regulated by the USDA’s “organic standards”. Among other things, organic farms: cannot use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, nor land which has been treated with this things for a number of years; cannot use genetically engineered seed; and must raise animals without the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and in adherence to arguably minimalist standards of animal welfare. Organic foods must be free from a nice, long list of harmful additives.

Organic is by no means perfect. It leaves plenty of room for industrial agricultural methods to sneak in (there are organic-certified CAFOs, factory animal farms), is an expensive and difficult certification process especially for small farms, and does not provide any incentive to use methods that are above-and-beyond its own regulations. But with that said, organic certification does give consumers a well-defined anchor upon which to base their food choices, and is an important stepping stone in the right direction.

Beyond-organic/sustainable. Even better than organic, though, is truly sustainable, “beyond-organic” food! This is not backed by a legal definition; rather, it is a very broad, general idea that requires us to talk to the people who grow our food and actually understand their methods.

Admittedly, “sustainable” is probably as watered-down of a buzzword as organic, but it is still my favorite descriptor. Simply put, my definition of sustainable agriculture (or anything else) is that which 1) could be performed indefinitely into the future, without permanently depleting the resource base upon which it relies, and 2) when the accounting includes our entire planet and a long enough time period, has a net zero or (better yet) positive effect on the Earth’s balance sheet.

This is a pretty tall order, and more easily-defined on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s not an incredibly difficult thing to do, given that nature has done it for something like 4.5 billion years with far less human cranial capacity than we have today. Let’s look at a couple of broad examples.

At its base, non-intensive annual or perennial (or permaculture) planting is sustainable. When artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are avoided, and the soil is mulched, irrigated with sustainable sources of water, and built up with natural soil fertility methods, this type of agriculture produces plant foods while generating a healthier environment in the process. Again, this is irrespective of whether they are certified organic or not. My friend Christina, and her amazing vegetable and flower operation at Blue Skys Farm, is a perfect example of this. Check them out at http://blueskysfarm.com/. As a side note (and not because I’m at all biased), grain and legume agriculture cannot be done this way at all.

On the flip side, the system of exclusively pasture-raised livestock is sustainable, and far beyond organic. The equation is simple: a herd of grass-eating animals (cows, bison, buffalo, sheep, goats, llamas, rabbits, etc) + healthy pasture + freshwater + the farmer’s ingenuity = meat + more animals + healthier pasture + the same amount of freshwater. This system is not only sustainable by every metric, but actually yields a healthier biosphere. That’s probably why the Earth was populated with billions of these animals prior to the expansion of humankind (which is true, despite the best attempts of certain agenda-driven, anti-scientific advisory groups to ignore this fact). This type of animal agriculture is perfect, pretty much irrespective of whether the meat is “certified organic” (which would really only further guarantee no use of hormones/steroids/antibiotics, something that can easily be verified with the farmers). Aquidneck Farms in Portsmouth is an example of this. Check them out at http://aquidneckfarms.com/.

As a quick final note, I want to make it clear that none of the above words are necessarily synonymous with “healthy”. I will talk more about nutrition sometime in the future, but I want to point this out in response to a debate that I had on Facebook a while back. Sugar is sugar, grain flour is grain flour, soy is soy, and refined seed oils are refined seed oils, and all of these things are unhealthy, period. It doesn’t matter if they’re GMO or natural or organic or sustainably grown, they are unhealthy. And I would go so far as to say that the improvement in health made by removing them from your diet altogether is far superior to that made by switching from conventional to non-GMO/organic/whatever. Conventionally grow vegetables and factory farmed eggs are healthier for a human body than organic cane sugar or organic tofu. Choose organic, sustainable foods for the many good reasons above; not as the sole metric of healthy food.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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