Demystifying Food Labels: How Should We Use Them?

Demystifying Food Labels: How Should We Use Them?

Life Check: Honestly evaluating how things are going right now—the good, the bad, and the moldy.

I absolutely believe the best food is the food you buy from the farmer you know. But I know we can’t always buy all our food straight from a farmer we know if we want to eat a balanced and enjoyable diet 365 days a year.

What are we supposed to do then? We want to eat good food. But we also just want to eat food.

Meet the research I’ve compiled about food labeling. I’m answering questions like: How do we shop at the grocery store? What do we pay more for? What do we try our best to buy from a farm?

Most of the answers to these questions come back to food labels. The labels on our grocery store-purchased food affect our decisions when we spend our money. But what do they guarantee?

Let’s take a closer look at some of these food labels.

USDA Organic

The Organic label seems to be the most hotly debated label in pretty much every circle I’m a part of. Millennials? Check. Food producers? Check. Moms? Check. Humans trying to not eat poison? Check. None of us seem to be able to agree on anything. Do we buy food with this label to be healthier? Is the label worth the money as a consumer or producer? Are foods labeled Organic more nutritious? What will happen to me if I don’t eat food with an Organic label?

The USDA Organic label is an expensive label that most small local farms can’t afford. Often ones with amazing chemical-free practices. So even if you prefer the Organic regulations, don’t rule out local farms who haven’t bought the government certification. Get to know your farmer and interview them about their practices. You’re the best judge when it comes to what practices are okay for your body.

Speaking of USDA Organic regulations, have you read them? Here they are. I suggest you read carefully, especially if this is the standard you’ve chosen for your food. See what herbicides and pesticides inspectors allow in Organic food production and in what amounts. Do some research! It’s good to understand what you’re putting in your body.

Bottom line? Relationship status: It’s complicated. Some of the main herbicides used in both conventional and organic farming have not been researched or tested for, or that process has just begun. Not only do we not know all of the chemicals coming through in our food yet, but we don’t completely know how they affect us.

Certified Naturally Grown

I’ve learned about this label most recently. You’re most likely to find it at farmers markets and food stands. The CNG label is both stricter and cheaper than the organic label. I like that it is a meaningful label that is attainable for small local farms. CNG farms are inspected by farmers, not government inspectors. That’s a mark in the “pro” column from me.

I hope awareness for the label grows so that more small farmers can connect with mainstream consumers who want better food.

For now, I see a lot of consumers not trusting anything except the USDA Organic label. Maybe because it’s short and more scientific-sounding? It’s definitely confusing. The word “organic” denotes both a government-regulated label and a description of farming practices. The kicker? Capitalization makes all the difference.

With more information, we’ll all have better food!

Certified SC Grown/Locally Grown labels

Every state’s department of agriculture maintains a label that can be obtained by farmers, producers, and processors in that state. If you grow locally or use local ingredients to make your product, you can obtain this label for your food. This is as close as you can get to a “local” label.

I love so much that these programs exist. Everybody wins (especially the economy) when we consumers buy local. There’s some fun, old-fashioned hometown pride generated by these eye-catching labels.

My business, Bossy Baker, wears this label with pride. I use many locally grown ingredients in my products. I’m proud of the ingredients coming from where I live. It’s a really great program!

As someone who shops local and also holds this “local label”, I know this: The label comes with a lot of love, but not a lot of oversight. I’m a broken record, I know. It’s another friendly reminder that you are the final authority on your own food. Get to know what you’re buying and who you’re buying it from!

Meat, Dairy and Egg Labeling

I’ve saved the most concerning labels (if you’re an animal person) for last. Free-range, cage-free, grass-fed, pasture-raised, and humanely-raised all have very loose definitions in the USDA’s regulations. These terms are so poorly defined that there’s often almost no difference between the treatment of animals whose products bear these labels and that of what we’d normally term “factory farms”.

Are some of the eggs, meat and dairy with these labels ok? I’m sure they are! But I’m not sure which ones.

I used to not think I cared about this. I didn’t even think about it. But once I’d tried meat and eggs from local farms and visited to see how happy the animals were, I couldn’t go back.

Meat, dairy, and eggs now live on my “Must Buy Local” list. I still consume those ingredients from non-local sources at restaurants or gatherings. I’m fine with that. I love all food! But when I’m buying ingredients, I buy animal products from local sources. I love being able to make food that tastes better and that I can feel good about using.

Where Does That Leave Us?

You probably clicked on this post to get a handy guide to which food labels are the “best”. That wasn’t what you got, was it?

I’m not trying to trick anyone. I don’t hate food labeling. But I don’t think labels give us an accurate idea of the quality of our food.

So if I don’t use certifications and labels as a guide, how do I know what I’m getting? How do I shop confidently at grocery stores?

I’ve developed some personal guidelines for shopping at grocery stores over time. They can be bent or broken, but they give me a starting point when I’m not sure what to buy. Here’s 5 questions I think you’ll find useful too:

  1. How much can I know about this product?

    There are several companies near and dear to my heart that put all the important information on their products’ wrappers and have great websites. Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur Flour, Fage, and many more. I value information as a consumer, and respect companies who give it to me. If you can’t buy something local, buy it local to somewhere. Find out about the real people behind what you’re buying.

  2. How many ingredients does it contain?

    Have you ever heard someone claim to be eating something really healthy because it was organic gluten-free vegan and kosher and then you found out it was gummy bears or cheese crackers or chili fries? All those foods are amazing and we should totally eat them (in moderation), but no food labels are going to make them health foods. The less processed our food, the healthier it is, no matter what fancy labels it has on the outside of the box.

  3. Do I need this product right now?

    I buy almost all of my produce and all my eggs, meat, and dairy locally. If I find myself wanting to buy a fruit or vegetable from the grocery store, I think about whether I have to have it or if I could substitute an in-season local item instead. Avocados, bananas, and some other delicious foods don’t grow in South Carolina, so sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. And I always need onions and garlic. Sometimes I just want to make something even though the ingredients are out of season. And that’s ok. This is about knowing more about my food and making choices with that knowledge. I’m in charge of those choices!

  4. Are there any reasons not to buy this item?

    Pretty much any time my almost-4-year-old asks me to buy a food from the grocery store, I buy it. Her patience with what I’m learning on this local food journey has impressed me constantly. She tries so many different things! So when she asks me for something specific to eat, I listen. I know that she needs to develop her own relationship with food, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. So if she asks me for cookies or fruit loops, we buy them. And those requests don’t come as often as you’d think.

  5. Am I sure this product is what I think it is?

    As much as I love the idea of specialized grocery stores that carry a lot of local, organic, and healthy foods, I approach them with caution. At any of these stores, not every item is local, organic, or healthy. But we consumers can know that and still get caught up in a shopping spree thinking there’s no way to make a bad choice in this store. So this one goes back to making sure we can know what we’re buying, item by item.

I hope this information about food labels gave you something to think about. I want so much for my opinions about food not to change your mind, but to open it.

I would love so much if you walked away from reading this to research and validate the food beliefs you already have. To have a healthier and more meaningful relationship with food, we must understand the food we’re choosing. And we’re not going to gain that understanding from government regulated food labels and grocery store marketing.

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