Labels for the Locavore

By Michael Buck and Michelle Pittman

Tending to a backyard garden or making a weekly trip to a farmer’s market is definitely the best way to get produce. It takes all the guesswork out of eating what’s in season and what’s grown locally. But that takes both a personal commitment and extra time that some people might not be able to spare.

There are still options available at the grocery store if you are looking to buy food that’s better for the environment, your body and the animals. It can be a daunting task at first: you’re up against packaging that’s meant to be enticing and takes advantage of common assumptions.

We’ve been on the lookout lately for some of the more ambiguous and sneaky terms that show up a lot on packaging. Here is a list every supermarket shopper should know:

  1. All natural and any variation of the phrase. It can mean just about anything and isn’t really regulated by the FDA or the USDA.
  2. Fresh. It’s comical how often this shows up on premade or prepackaged food. By definition, fresh means “not stale.” That inspires a whole lot of confidence.
  3. Cage free. This does not mean free range (see below). It doesn’t even mean chickens are kept outside. “Cage free” just means that chickens/poultry/livestock aren’t confined. Slate had a really good explanation of eggs. We strongly encourage you to check it out.
  4. Free range. To achieve this claim, producers just have to demonstrate to the USDA that they allow their stock access to the great outdoors. It doesn’t say anything about them roaming on green pastures with the wind blowing on their beaks.
  5. Made from/with real fruits or vegetables. Even this is a thin claim. Anything that needs to claim to be “real” should make you think twice about what’s in the product.
In short, you are looking specifically labeled products. Here are a couple:
  1. USDA Certified Organic. It’s that little green and white label. It means everything in the product was made with organic items and the government watches over these producers and their labels to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.
  2. Fair Trade. Anything that carries the fair trade symbol needs to be certified by FLO-CERT, an independent organization that regulates fair trade products and practices.

If you’re unsure of what the labeling means, start asking questions. Visit company websites, check the ingredients list and make sure you know where your produce is coming from. Got something you always look for in a food? Share it.

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