Organic? Natural? Confused!

What is organic food versus non-GMO? What does the word ‘natural’ mean on a food product?  I would wager that every person who has been to a grocery store has been confused by the labels on the sea of products on the shelves. It’s important to always read the ingredients label and to really consider what is printed on a product — from beef, to orange juice, to chips. Remember, food manufacturers are businesses.  The logo, pictures on the box, recipes on the back of the package, and words like “healthy” are all ways to try to sell their product and make a profit.  We should be knowledgeable about the food we buy and what the following labels mean:

USDA Organic

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began using an official USDA Organic seal on food that is certified organic. For a food to display the official seal, the farmers raising the crop/animal have to follow strict guidelines issued by the FDA to meet the requirements. It’s not just a matter of withholding pesticides — there are other criteria that organic food products must meet. According to the USDA, organic farms and processors:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

When you buy organic food, you know that not only was is grown without toxic chemicals, but it also promotes sustainable organic labelenvironmental practices, and if it’s an organic animal it wasn’t raised in a restrictive tiny cage.

Be sure to look for the organic logo on products noting that it is officially recognized as meeting these requirements.  Although, sometimes you may come across a food item with the word ‘organic’ on it which not display the USDA seal. This does not necessarily mean that the product is not organic. Some smaller manufacturers, farms and farms markets don’t turn enough profit to meet the requirements to apply for certification and do not consistently use the label. Whenever there is any rule or regulation, there are some rule-breakers so it is possible to come across foods claiming to be organic when in fact, it is not.  However, the USDA is strict about enforcing the term and violators can be fined several thousand dollars for non-compliance.

Non-GMO

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot-button topic in the U.S. and globally.  Advocates say GMOs are a crucial way to feed the world’s growing population and combat hunger in third-world countries. Opponents argue that genetically modifying products all along our food change will have a definite negative effect on our health. Delve into some more research of your own to decide where you stand on the matter. However, when it comes to food labeling, know this. For a food to be labeled organic, as mentioned above, one of the criteria it needs to meet is being non-GMO. However, a food can be non-GMO but not organic. Food producers who can’t or don’t want to meet all the criteria for organic certification but who don’t use GMO crops in their production can still tout the non-GMO on their label.

Natural & Other Claims

You have probably seen terms on many food items like: All-Natural, Raised Naturally, Made with Natural Ingredients/Flavors. Currently, there is very limited regulation on food products labeled ‘Natural.’  The exception is meat/poultry which can calim it’s natural if it does not contain artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.   However, because the regulation is not air-tight, food manufacturers can take advantage of the context of wording.  According to the USDA, “For example, claims indicating that a product is  natural food, e.g., “Natural chili” or “chili – a natural product” would be unacceptable for a product containing beet powder which artificially colors the finished product.  However, “all natural ingredients” might be an acceptable claim for such a product.”  Consumer Reports did some really interesting research on the topic, showing 7 foods labeled as natural but revealing the very unnatural added ingredients.

 

On your next trip to the grocery store, take a closer look at the food packaging.  On any given product, you will often see an important-looking statement like “made with all-natural oats”, “X grams of whole grain”, or “100% Whole Wheat”.   A statement about one thing like whole grain or protein content, can be a distraction and it is often used as a marketing ploy.  You will focus on how much protein it has but not turn the box over to read how much sodium it contains, or that the top five ingredients include sugar AND malt syrup AND invert sugar.  Don’t rely on the bold statements on the front of the package, but instead on the legally required information on the back which will allow you to draw your own conclusion about the product.
wheat thins full

The more you get into the practice of reading food ingredients, the less confusing it will be when you do your shopping.  You will start to pick up on the marketing tricks of food manufacturers.  There is a lot that needs to be done in the area of improving regulations, and that requires us as consumers putting pressure on the food product industry.  But the most useful resources that we have right now are our hands and eyes.  Don’t just put food into your shopping cart.  Turn it over and read!

 

Share your comments or questions!  What labeling do you look for when you buy food?

Advertisements

Friday Favorite: Tolerant Lentil Pasta

I love me some pasta.  Picture the Cookie Monster going to town on some chocolate chip cookies, and that’s pretty much me every time I’m around macaroni and cheese or spaghetti pomodoro.  It’s delicious, filling, and works with all kinds of sauces as well as in soups and in casseroles.  So what’s a girl to do when trying to cut back on refined white flour?

There are a lot of gluten-free pasta options available.  Always read the ingredients on the back of the box so that you know exactly what it’s made from.  I was too naive the first few times I bought gluten-free pasta, only to get home and see that the pasta I had bought was made with corn or rice flour.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with those ingredients, but the rice pasta sat in my stomach like a rock, and the corn pasta came apart into a mushy mess when cooked.  I also tried a few brands of lentil pasta but it didn’t hold its shape and created a slimy foam when I cooked it.

Then one day I walked down the pasta aisle at the grocery store and a light from heaven shone down over a box of Tolerant brand red lentil penne.  Actually, it wasn’t that dramatic — my best friend recommended the brand to me.  But it did end up being a game changer.  NOTHING can really be a substitute for real pasta, so I recommend saving that for your favorite recipes. But for a quick and healthy (Lentils provide protein!) mid-week meal, throw together some Tolerant red lentil penne with marinara, or their green lentil elbow macaroni with pesto.  You can find it at most natural food grocery stores, or on Vitacost.com.  And skip the spiral shape kind which is too dense and hard.

 

Recipe: Cous Cous with Collard Greens & Squash

One of my favorite stalls to visit at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market every Sunday is New Morning Farm.  The organic farm in south-central Pennsylvania produces fruit, vegetables, and herbs that are always colorful and flavorful.  The other week, I received a Twitter message from the farm challenging me and some other local bloggers to create new recipes for the collard greens that are often overlooked at the market.  Kale and spinach are now trendy, leaving collard greens behind in the dust.  I was excited to get my creative (green) juices flowing.  I’ve eaten collard greens before, but only in its most common southern-style form — slow cooked with a salty ham hock.  I decided not to overcook it into a grayish-green oblivion, but instead keep the vibrant green color by wilting it with fluffy whole-wheat cous cous, tender chunks of acorn squash, and tart dried cranberries.  The result was a flavorful dish for early autumn.

Ingredients

1 small acorn squash
*3 cups cooked whole wheat cous cous
*vegetable bouillon
1 bunch collard greens
1 medium sweet onion
1 cup dried cranberries
1 + ½ tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)
salt to taste

Peel the squash and cut off the stem.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.  Cut the two halves into small bite-sized pieces.  Prepare the collard greens by washing them thoroughly, cutting out the stems and then rolling them into a bunch lengthwise and chopping them into 1-inch strips. Dice the onion.  Heat ½ tbsp. of the ghee in a large pan over a medium flame.  Add the onions and stir until they become a golden-translucent.  Transfer the onions to a bowl and add 1 tablespoon ghee to the pan and melt before adding the cubed squash.  Lower the heat to medium-low.  Cook covered, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender when stabbed with a fork. Add the greens a stir until they just start to wilt.  Remove from the heat and add the cous cous, onions and dried cranberries.  Gently fold all the ingredient together to combine.  Add salt to taste (but remember the bouillon already added some salty flavor).

*Follow the instructions on the box to prepare your cous cous, but instead of plain water, add the appropriate amount of vegetable bouillon for flavor.

Buying Eggs: Cage-Free to Pasture-Raised and Everything In Between

When I was growing up, I only remember a couple kinds of eggs being available at the grocery store: Grade A Large and Grade egg optionsA Extra Large, brown or white.  Those were basically the only choices.  Now with consumers being more concerned with how their meat and dairy products were raised, there are many more options in the dairy aisle.  Have you ever wondered what the actual difference between pasture-raised, free-range, and cage-free eggs are or even assumed they are the same thing?  Or have you ever felt kind of guilty about buying the regular eggs when the free-range eggs are right next to them but $2 more expensive?  I definitely have, so I did some research.  Here’s a quick guide:

Battery cages
Battery cages are what most chickens produced in the U.S. are kept in.  It’s basically like spending your whole life in an chickens-battery-cagesovercrowded jail cell where nobody ever changes out the latrine bucket.  Ick.   According to the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, for many chickens raised in these conditions, “their beaks have been cut off so that the stress of being in uncomfortable living conditions doesn’t lead to pecking their fellows to death.”  If you buy eggs that aren’t labeled pasture-raised/cage-free/free-range or buy any breakfast sandwich from a fast food place, you’re almost sure to be eating eggs raised in this environment.

Cage-Free
Take away the cages and you would think life would be great for these birds.  However, cage-free really cage-free-chickensjust means the chickens just have the ability to roam around a larger enclosed structure like a giant warehouse that holds thousands of birds.  At least then they can literally spread their wings, make nests, etc.  But see the light of day during their lifetime? Not so much…  This looks like a red-line Metro platform during a rush-hour delay!

Free-Range
Free-range is really a deceptive description when it comes to poultry.  If you’re picturing Charlotte the chicken clucking Free-Range-Hens-Overcrowdedaround a wide open field each day and Farmer Frank gently guiding her back into the coop at night, you’re about to have your bubble burst.  In order for a poultry product to be labeled Free-Range,  the UDSA only requires that “poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  Often this still means a HUGE warehouse of thousands of chickens, with one little access door, or a high-up strip of windows.  But since they are overcrowded chickens, and not National Geographic explorers, they’re not likely find the outside access door especially if it’s not near their food and water source.

Pasture-raised/Organic
In a utopia, all chickens would be raised this way.  This is the Charlotte the chicken storybook picture I mentioned earlier. Pasture-raised chickens.  Image courtesy of Honeyhillorganicfarm.com People say that eggs from this environment taste better, and while I’m not an egg connoisseur I would probably agree with this.  After all, are you more likely to turn in a fantastic report to your boss if you’re extremely stressed or relaxed and enjoying life?  It’s probably the same for chickens and the product they make.  Not to mention I don’t want to feel badly that a chicken led a wretched life just so I could have my omelette. However, it can be really difficult to find pasture-raised or organic eggs in conventional grocery stores.  Also just because eggs are labeled organic, doesn’t mean they are pasture-raised.  They could have been stuffed into a “free-range” warehouse and just given organic feed.

So with all that being said, it’s really not my intention to scare you into being a vegan.  I actually really like eating eggs.  My suggestion is just to be more conscious of egg labels and where your eggs come from. Know what you are comfortable buying and eating.  If you want pasture-raised, organic or free-range eggs and don’t see them available, take 2 minutes out of your week and talk to your grocery store manager.  Tell them that you’d like to see more of those products on their shelves.  Same thing with restaurant menus.  Retailers listen to their customers — that’s how we’ve gotten this far from those days in the 80’s with 2 kinds of eggs.

If you want to learn more about this, here are some good resources:

Poultry labeling terms: www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/chickopedia/
Where and how to buy organic chickens: www.localharvest.org/organic-chicken.jsp
Facts about pasture-raised poultry: www.apppa.org/getting-started-in-pastured-poultry

P.S. — If you do some google image searching on this subject, be prepared for horrifying visuals.  I tried to only include PG pictures.

Recipe: Farro with Sautéed Leeks and Mushrooms

The other day I had one of those moments in the grocery store where I stared blankly at the produce shelves thinking, “Why did I not plan what I’m going to make dinner next week before coming into the store?”  Because that’s the thing, if I don’t go in with a game plan, I come out with 17 random things that can’t possibly be put together into a sensible/edible meal.  Then I had a small epiphany right there next to the bananas, realizing that a favorite and easy meal favorite of mine are vegetables sautéed with some kind of grain.  I knew I had something in the barley/risotto/rice family at home, so I bought two vegetables that I thought would make a yummy meal: leeks and mushrooms.  I’ve met a lot of people who have a lifelong aversion to mushrooms.  I plead with you — give them another shot!  They are tender, filling, flavorful and they make so many dishes really tasty.  If you aren’t familiar with leeks, they look like scallions that have been roid raging.  They similarly have an oniony flavor, although not an overpowering one.  When I got home, I decided the leeks and mushrooms would be best with farro, an “ancient” Roman grain — props to my Italian ancestors for cultivating this wonderful food.  Yes, this is a vegetarian recipe, but the hearty farro and mushrooms easily make it a main dish.  Hope you enjoy it!

 Ingredients

2-3 medium leeks (or 1 ½ REALLY BIG ones)
3 large portobello mushrooms or 1 pint button mushrooms
1 cup farro
2 cups vegetable broth (you can use  vegetable bouillon cubes and water)
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt (if desired) 

Put the vegetable broth and farro into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cover.  Cook for about 20 minutes or until the grain is tender and the liquid is almost all absorbed.  Remove from heat.  Meanwhile, slice leeks crosswise into ⅛ inch slices. Rinse in a colander (leeks grow in sandy dirt and often bring the outside in with them when they are harvested).  Clean the mushrooms by wiping them gently with a dampened paper towel.  Cut mushrooms into ½ in pieces.  On medium heat, melt butter and olive oil together in a large saucepan or dutch oven.  Just as the butter starts to become golden and bubbly, add the leeks and mushrooms.  Add the salt.  Stir to coat with the butter and oil and stir every few minutes until the vegetables are tender. Mix the vegetables with the cooked farro, and serve warm.