This is a guest post by Elizabeth Edwards, a Registered Dietitian and founder of www.dietitianlivinggreen.com, a blog on how to live your healthiest life, in and out of the kitchen.
Organic. Grass fed. Free range. We hear these buzz words a lot now, but what do they exactly mean? As I touched on in my previous post about 3 great New Year's Resolutions you can make, I believe it is so important to know where your food comes from, what it went through, and how it was made. Today I will go over these food buzz words so the next time conversation rolls around to these, you can drop some knowledge like a boss.
All natural: Not much drives me crazier as a dietitian than seeing "all natural" or something similar plastered all over processed food products. There still remains no definition for what "all natural" means, so companies are pretty much free to use it as they wish. The FDA does say the following about the use of the word,
"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."
The product could still be (and usually is) chock-full of added sugar and is highly processed, but hey-- it can bear an "all natural" label and dupe people into thinking it's something decent. Currently, there is a push for the FDA to evaluate the use of "all natural", as many feel the word is being used to deliberately mislead consumers into thinking a product is much healthier than it actually is. The FDA has extended the comment period for the public until May 10, 2016 on this issue, so if you'd like to add your thoughts on the matter, follow this link and scroll down to add your comment. To sum it up, seeing "natural" or "all natural" on a product is meaningless, so don't let it influence your purchasing decision. I've seen a few products that I WOULD in fact classify as all natural, but more often I see the term used on products I wouldn't classify as natural by any means.
Organic: The organic market is worth $35 billion and growing. In order to sell a product as organic, it must be certified to ensure it meets organic standards set by the USDA. Organic foods can not be or contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). This means the seeds cannot be GMO, organic animals must not be fed GMO feed, and products containing multiple ingredients must all be free of GMOs. Every year, organic farmers update their farm plan and complete an inspection to ensure compliance. You probably recognize the organic symbol below.
The USDA provides the following definition for organic:
"Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. USDA organic standards describe how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use. Organic farmers, ranchers, and food processors follow a defined set of standards to produce organic food and fiber. The USDA defines specific organic standards. These standards cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives."
The following list describes qualities of organic farms and processors:
- Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
- minimizing manure runoff (contamination)
- maintaining soil fertility through rotational grazing
- protect water and soil quality naturally
- Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
- Only use approved materials
- Most synthetic pesticides not allowed--the limited list of the only synthetic pesticides allowed for use is here, and this is only allowed on two conditions. 1- if the use of the substance will not contaminate the crops, soil, or water, and 2- they may only be used if non-chemical methods have not worked to control the pest.
- no antibiotics, added growth hormones, animal byproducts, and no feed ingredients like urea, manure, or arsenic compounds are allowed
- no ionizing radiation used, no use of sewage sludge
- no genetically engineered ingredients
- Support animal health and welfare
- allowed year-round access outside
- given shade, direct sunlight, space to exercise, shelter, clean & dry bedding, and clean water to drink
- raised on certified organic land
- preventive health strategies used before any medicine is considered (and then, only given if the animal is ill and needs it)
(Source: Organic Livestock Requirements)
- Receive annual onsite inspections
- Separate organic food from non-organic food (Source)
Don't those sound like standards that should be in place for all food? I sure think so. Interestingly, all food WAS organic until after World War 2. Put another way, there was no such thing as organic, because that's just what food WAS. As I recommended before, choose organic meat, poultry, and dairy 100% of the time if you can. Toxins like chemical pesticides do get stored in human and animal tissue-- specifically in the fat-- so it is important to take the steps we can to reduce this exposure. Because of this, if you absolutely cannot buy organic in these "priority" items, choose lean to avoid the toxin build-up and add your own healthy fat source, like avocado, coconut oils, or grass-fed butter.
Free-range: Oh, chickens. I think chickens may be the worst of all the animal industries as far as inhumane treatment. As you may remember from my previous article, I grew up raising chickens. That's me pictured below, with one of my favorite chickens growing up. They were my pets (I didn't have a cat, dog, or hamster like most kids), they had names, and occasionally even spent some time in the house (sorry mom!). Don't worry, my mom is well aware of my affinity for bringing chickens inside, I didn't just drop a bombshell. She'd walk around the corner and catch me inside with a chicken and I'd hear "Get that chicken out of my house!" and back outside we'd go. It was great fun. Anyway, I loved watching them interact and bop about the yard and garden, looking for bugs, worms, and scavenging other goodies. Watching their dirt-baths was my favorite! Growing up with this experience gives me rather strong convictions in my belief about the way all animals, and specifically chickens, are raised.
Free-range according to the USDA's Meat & Poultry Labeling Terms is simply, "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside". (Source.) This, as you might imagine, has a million loopholes. In my talks and experience with chicken farmers, "access to the outside" pretty much means a small door or hole in the wall where chickens could walk out to a very small patch of concrete, IF they wanted to. Most chickens raised on these large farms do not choose to go outside. They are so far removed from their natural way of living that they don't even know how to be chickens! We have raised chicks from this type of large-scale farm environment, and let me tell you, they have to be taught what outside is, and taught how to dig and forage in the dirt and grass. Bottom line: Free-range basically means nothing because it doesn't ensure the chicken actually spent a single minute outdoors. Cage Free on the other hand, has a tad more merit. It means the chickens are free move around and can spread their wings, as opposed to kept in battery cages where they cannot flap their wings and barely have any room to move.
Ideally, you want to buy eggs from a farm where you know the conditions the chickens are living in and can assure they are not fed animal by-products or GMO feed, are cage-free, and ideally free-range to a level that satisfies your concern for animal welfare.
This is me with my pet chicken, Hannah, in 1994.
Grass-Fed: Every time I hear or use the term grass-fed butter I imagine a lovely slab of butter chowing down on a big pile of grass, and it makes me giggle. Of course, the term grass-fed refers to the cow whose milk was turned into butter. It's much easier to say grass-fed butter than it is to say butter-from-a-cow-who-was-grass-fed! :-) Like so much in the food industry, there isn't a cut-and-dry definition for grass-fed. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) and the USDA have different standards for their beef. In short, the USDA defines grass fed as ruminant animals (grazing animals with 4 stomachs) fed only their mother's milk followed by grass and forage (grass, vegetation, hay, grains in unprocessed form, etc) from weaning to harvest with no confinement during the growing season. The AGA decided this was too narrow of a definition, as it still allows the animals to be pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and fed GMO forage. The AGA feels many consumers who care about grass fed beef would also care about other junk being given to the animal, and I quite agree. So, the AGA takes that definition and expands it to include no confinement ever, no hormones or antibiotics, and animals who were born and raised in the USA. (Source.) Food Alliance also has a similar grass-fed definition to the AGA.
Grass-fed cows at pasture on Tyner Pond Farm.
You may not find the AGA grass fed label on many products, so the best course of action is to know your farmer and your meat source! As with organic, knowing your farmer and their practices will assure you the processes are indeed grass-fed even though the "official" certification may not be in place, as this can be quite costly. Tyner Pond Farm is an organic-practicing farm that fits the AGA's expanded definition of grass-fed. They also have the option of both 100% grass-fed cows and grass-fed + some grain-allowed cows. No hormones or antibiotics are ever given, and all cows are bred on the farm or sourced from like-minded farmers in the USA. Awesome!
OK great, so now we know what it means, but why does it matter? Aside from much-higher quality of life for the animal, research continues to show grass-fed beef is higher in nutrients than conventional beef. Consumers often note a much better taste as well, and this is something you can easily do at home and see for yourself! I was very surprised at the difference in appearance and taste when I did this experiment. Conventional beef may be fed grass for a short time, but the animals are then sent to confinement where they are fattened up on an unnatural diet of corn and grain. Animals who are allowed to live the way nature intended them to are happier and healthier, yielding a healthier product for humans to consume. Ruminants who have been grass-fed have a different body composition than those unnaturally fed corn. Corn and other grains are highly processed, and much like they have a poor effect on human health, so too do they have a negative effect on animals who were not meant to eat them. Grass-fed cows have more muscle, less saturated fat and fat overall, and more polyunsaturated fats and than their conventional counterparts, and higher amount of healthy omega-3 fatty acids in their muscle. (Source.) Grain-fed animals have a much poorer omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, with several times more Omega-6's than Omega 3's. Without getting onto another topic entirely, we are currently seeing a heavy imbalance in our diets with these two fats. While Omega-6's are good for us, they are not good in high amounts as they cause inflammation. Omega-3's, by contrast, are anti-inflammatory. (Source.)
To sum it up in a sentence: Going grass-fed is better for the animal, better for us to consume (healthier), and better for the environment!
Cows at pasture on Tyner Pond Farm
Pasture-raised: This is where it can get a little confusing, so bear with me here. As we just learned, grass-fed tackles the topic of WHAT the cow ate. Pasture-raised tackles the topic of WHERE the cow ate. I think that is the easiest way to explain it. So, thinking of a pasture-raised cow may make you think of a cow strolling freely through a lush, green landscape, but it doesn't guarantee that cow wasn't given a trough full of GMO corn to chow on once he returned from gallivanting through the pasture. Basically, it again boils down to knowing your farmer and the farming practices he/she uses. Pasture-raised can be also grass-fed, or it could just be pasture-raised but allowed to eat grain. Most grass-fed animals are also pasture-raised, but it is worth asking, because it is conceivable that the animals could be fed all grass (hay) and be kept indoors. The best choice would be choosing a farm/source where the meat is both pasture-raised and grass-fed, where the animals are allowed to eat and live the way nature intended them to. Luckily for us in the Indianapolis area, Tyner Pond Farms has products that are just that-- grass-fed, pasture-raised, and organic! Woo hoo!
There is one more point to mention regarding pasture raised. Pigs and chickens will often have the pasture-raised label and not grass-fed, because they are not grazing ruminants whose diet can be make up solely of grass. Pigs and chickens are omnivores and while they do eat grass, also need more than that in their diets. So for these animals, pasture-raised is the way to go, along with organic to ensure they were not fed GMOs.
Consumers like you are gaining more and more of an interest in where their food comes from and what the impact of growing it has on the environment. Once again, know your farmer! Many small farms, like Tyner Pond Farm, are following all of the above-mentioned high standards for food yet may not have gone through the expensive and often arduous process of getting the label. Knowing and having a relationship with your food source allows you to ascertain that the farms do indeed meet the qualifications for the labels. Supporting humane and as-nature-intended practices for raising animals is not only better for us as 'top of the food chain' carnivores, but is better for the animals AND is crucial to supporting our environment, ecosystems, and natural resources. They are being decimated at alarming levels by large-scale factory farming. I truly believe the wave of the future of food lies with people going back to basics-- knowing your farmer, shopping local, and supporting your community.