It’s International Earth Month, and Earth Day is rapidly approaching. April has become one of my favorite shopping months in recent years as the “eco-movement” has grown, with more organic and natural products emerging and being promoted through Earth Month sales, coupons, and rebates.
This year is a bit different, though. As the economy has tightened, the competition for promotional dollars has also tightened. Many “organic and natural” companies and brands are now owned by larger companies. The promotional dollars are stretched thin. More companies, and stores, are focused on stocking shelves with lower cost items appealing to budget-conscience consumers, keeping sales up, factories running, and people employed. Tough decisions that consumers have little say in.
Consumers must make their own decisions. When money is tight, the decisions are more difficult. We may want to make the best long-term health decisions by buying organic, or the best short-term financial decision by buying a cheaper natural or non-organic product. We may prefer to buy detergents labeled as ‘natural’, without realizing it’s no more safe, or natural, than the cheaper alternative. Our political and social responsibility may require us to purchase ‘fair trade’ products, while struggling to provide shelter and security for our own families.
These decisions may seem obvious. We all want to protect our own health, the environment, the planet, the farmers, the animals, the children. But when financial health is an opposing factor at a personal level, the choices become much more difficult. Each person and family must decide what is best for their own needs. There are ways to reduce costs for organic and natural products, most notably by shopping sales when they occur and by only purchasing those products that you consider critical necessities.
The best advice I can give is to be informed when making these trade offs. Assuming that you want to include a certain amount of organic and natural products in your diet, the first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with real meaning of terms that show up on product labels. You can then evaluate which certifications or designations are a priority to you, and which are less important compared to your personal financial situation.
Here are a few basic terms to get you started:
- ORGANIC – Organic can only be used on a label if the manufacturer/grower has produced their products in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act. Although the details will be described elsewhere, here’s a short summary of the requirements:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
- NATURAL – There is no legal definition, or regulation, of the term ‘Natural’ on product labels. Worse, many companies are now using the term even more loosely, such as 70% natural, which is an attractive label, but still carries little meaning. Ideally, natural products should not contain artificial or synthetic ingredients, and if be minimally processed.
- SUSTAINABLE – Sustainable crops should not adversely impact the environment. In sustainable farming, farmers typically strive to produce crops organically while balancing fair trade and fair wage cost of living factors.
- CAGE-FREE – Cage-Free typically refers to poultry and their eggs, which are produced by hens housed in a cage-free, protected area. Cage Free hens receive natural sunlight, shade, shelter, an exercise area, fresh air, and are protected from predators. Cage Free chickens are typically fed an organic, natural feed as well.
- FAIR TRADE – Products bearing the Fair Trade certification are generally of high quality, grown, and harvested under much more stringent and environmentally friendly conditions, and yield fairer prices to the smaller farmers who take extra care to safely cultivate and bring them to market. In the U.S., a representative list of Fair Trade certified products includes coffee, cocoa, sugar, rice, and some fruits. Many are also certified organic. Details of Fair Trade will be discussed in a future post.
- FREE-RANGE – Although free-range normally refers to poultry like chicken and turkey, it can really apply to any animal that is allowed to be raised outside of sheds or locked stalls. Free-range chickens are almost always fed an organic diet, and may or may not include production with antibiotics Most free-range animals are still raised in a controlled environment, however, it’s believed that time outside of sheds and stalls is the more human way to raise animals, even if they are to be later slaughtered for meat. Note that animals not given time outside yet fed an organic diet does not qualify them for the “free-range” designation.
- GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS (Food Souces) – Genetically Modifidied Organisms (GMOs) are organisms with genes that have been manually manipulated, or altered. This is done to introduce new, or alter existing, characteristics of the food. Genetic modification is used to increase the yield or quality of various crops, or produce new or better enzymes and proteins. For example, GMO soy products are fairly common. GMO techniques are also beginning to replace natural “breeding” in animals to selectively produce lifestock.The FDA does not require labeling of foods containing GMOs, and this remains a concern to many consumers. There is increasing concern that the long term effects of genetic engineering may have both on human and environmental health are unknown. Legislation has been written to allow products to continue to be sold without labeling, while other legislation would mandate labeling.
- GRAIN-FED – Grain-fed livestock are raised on a diet of corn and other grains. In addition, other ingredients can be included in the feed such as cottonseed and molasses. Grain-fed does not necessarily mean organic.
- GRASS-FED – In order to be certified, the American Grassfeed Association’s 100% Grassfed Remunant program requires that livestock be fed a diet of strictly mother’s milk and/or herbaceous plants during the animal’s entire life-span. Certified animals cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics.
- HORMONE-FREE – The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits the use of hormones in poultry and pork. Labeling is therefore unnecessary, and often considered misleading. There is no certification for products to be labeled as hormone-free.
- RBST – RbST is an FDA-approved synthetic hormone used to increase milk production in cows. While most European countries have outlawed RbST for use in dairy production, the US dairy councils and USDA support its use.
Some other natural, and unnatural terms to look for:
Additive describes a substance added to products in order to improve color, flavoring, texture and / or preservation; change characteristics and aid processing.
Amino acids are nitrogen bearing molecules that form the basis of proteins. The sequence of amino acids (of which there are 20) establishes the structure and function of a protein.
Food anti-microbials are compounds that are capable of destroying or prohibiting the growth of pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, moulds and yeast that may cause spoilage of foods.
Ascorbic acid, commonly known as Vitamin C, is an antioxidant and water-soluble vitamin, essential to the construction of connective tissue. Ascorbic acid is needed for the formation of collagen, the body’s main protein, and deficiencies can cause a negative impact on the body’s ability to heal itself. The body stores insignificant amounts of ascorbic acid, therefore requiring daily replenishment.
Baking is a cooking procedure that uses dry heat in an enclosed chamber. Baked goods generally refer to cereal-based products, such as bread or cakes.
Blanching is the heat treatment of foodstuffs by boiling or steaming in order to kill natural enzymes, soften the tissue and remove raw flavoring.
Capsaicin is the chemical oil found in chili peppers that gives them their hot taste. The higher the volume of capsaicin, the hotter the chili pepper.
Carotene is a carotenoid that is commonly found in yellow / orange fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, mangoes and apricots. Carotene provides health benefits in its capability to be converted into Vitamin A, and the neutralization of free radicals.
Carrageenan is a natural thickening compound extracted from carrageen seaweed and red algae. Carrageenan is commonly used in dairy products, such as milk shakes and ice cream, to stabilize the color and the flavor of the product
Cereals are foods that are produced using edible grass grains, such as barley, wheat and corn. It is also commonly used to describe breakfast meals made from these substances.
Cholesterol is a steroid found in animal cell membranes. It is created by the liver, and is present in many food types. Cholesterol is essential to nerve fiber insulation, transportation of fatty acids and the production of Vitamin D, bile acids, testosterone, estrogens and cortisol. High levels of cholesterol in the blood stream are indicative of potential heart disease.
Citric acid is found in almost all plants and animals. Substantial quantities are found in citrus fruits (oranges, lemons and limes) and berries (strawberries, raspberries and currants). The salts found in citric acid are commonly used for emulsification, pH adjustment (to improve flavoring) or as a mineral source for food
Corn syrup is a syrup made from cornstarch and is widely used as a sweetener in food processing due to its high glucose content. Corn syrup also prevents crystallization and can help increase shelf-life in baked goods.
Cornstarch, also known as corn flour, is a fine flour ground from the endosperm portion of corn kernels. Cornstarch is commonly used as a thickening agent in sauces, and making corn syrup and sugars.
Dextrose Glucose (D-glucose)
Dextrose glucose (also know as D-glucose) is a simple sugar composed mainly of carbohydrates, but dextrose glucose also contains protein and fat. Dextrose glucose is the major source of energy for cells and is used by the body in combination with insulin. In food processing, dextrose glucose is widely used as a sweetener.
Dietary fiber refers to the indigestible carbohydrates found in fruit, vegetables, grain and nuts. Dietary fiber is not found in meats or dairy products. Soluble dietary fiber plays a role in lowering blood cholesterol and regulation of blood sugar levels. Insoluble dietary fiber assists in maintaining optimal bowel movements, reducing the risk of colon cancer, hemorrhoids and diabetes. Dietary fiber contains no calories and is not absorbed by the body.
An emulsifier is an additive that produces a stable mixture of food components; oils, fats, water, air, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, vitamins and flavors. Emulsifiers blend the ingredients of the mixtures and prevent them separating during processing
An enzyme is a protein that catalyses or accelerates a biochemical reaction without altering the nature of the reaction.
Food irradiation exposes food to high-energy rays (x-ray or gamma ray), killing bacteria and helping extend the shelf life of products. Methods of food irradiation include electronic or cold pasteurization.
Free radicals refer to molecules that contain unpaired electrons, making them unstable and highly reactive. They react with other molecules, possibly resulting in successive electron transfer between molecules (a chain reaction). This can cause a disruption in cellular processes, resulting in oxidative stress and cellular damage.
Freeze drying defines the process of preserving food products by freezing them, and then evaporating the water (in the form of ice) directly into vapor by sublimation. Freeze drying produces one of the highest quality food products obtainable through any drying method, and allows for rapid and near complete re-hydration.
Functional foods can be beneficial to one’s health by contributing nutritional value beyond the expected level of nutrients. These foods can make treatment and risk reduction claims, in addition to providing nutritional information.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are organisms with manipulated genes to introduce new, or alter existing, characteristics, or produce a new protein or enzyme. Genetic modification is used to increase the yield or quality of various crops.
Gluten is the protein element found in cereal grains, such as wheat, oats and barley. The gluten in flour gives dough its elasticity when mixed with water.
Homogenization is the process of ensuring a uniform composition and stable structure throughout a product. Often used with dairy products to maintain an unvarying consistency in the end product.
Lactose is a natural disaccharide sugar that is found in milk products. Lactose is often referred to as milk sugar, and is considered a nutritive sugar due to its calorie content. Some people are lactose intolerant due to the lack of lactase, the enzyme required to digest milk sugar.
Lipids refer to the fatty substances found in animals and plants. Lipids are insoluble in water and can be classed as tri-glycerides, glycerophosphatides and sphingolipids. Lipids can act as a fuel source, and are easily stored in the body. Some lipids are essential to cell structure (Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils), but cannot be produced by the body, relying solely on dietary sources.
Nutraceuticals refers to any food product, supplement or dietary substance that has proven health and medical benefits. These are usually derived from phytochemicals, and help reduce the risk of disease. Common nutraceuticals include calcium, vitamins, Echinacea and ginseng.
Nutrients are the elements and compounds required for growth, development and maintenance of life in plants and animals. Includes vitamins and minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
Palm oil is orangey-red oil that is extracted from the pulp of the fruit from the African palm tree. Palm Oil is high in saturated fat and is often used in the production of margarine and lubricants.
Pasteurization is the process by which harmful organisms, pathogenic bacteria and viruses in liquids are eliminated by heating it to a critical temperature for a specified amount of time. When a liquid is pasteurized there are a number of neutral or beneficial organisms remaining, as opposed to sterilization, which destroys all life forms.
Pathogens are micro-organisms, such as bacteria or fungus that are capable of causing disease or illness after entering the body.
Pectin is a gelling and thickening agent found naturally in ripe fruit. Pectin is commonly used in the production of jams, jellies and preservatives, and can be found in dried and liquid form.
Phytochemicals are substances derived from plants, and are excellent dietary sources of phenolic metabolites. Phenolics are important to food preservation and are also used in medicinal applications due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is a strong, lightweight plastic resin and form of polyester. PET is commonly used in food packaging due to its strong barrier properties against water vapor, dilute acids, gases, oils and alcohols. PET is also shatter-resistant and can be recycled in the form of Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (RPET).
Polypropylene (PP) is a strong, light-weight, low-density plastic used in food packaging. PP has a high melting point, making it suitable for hot food processing and packaging.
Processing is the treatment of food substances in such a manner as to change its properties with a view to preserving it, improving its quality or making it functionally more useful.
Proteins are large, complex molecules composed of chains of one or more amino acids. The sequence of the base pair of nucleotides in the encoding gene determines the order of amino acids and the protein’s function. Proteins each have a unique function and are essential to the function, structure and regulation of the body’s cells and tissues. Proteins include antibodies, hormones and enzymes.
Shelf life specifies the period of time which a product can be stored, under specified conditions, and remain in optimum condition and suitable for consumption.
Shortenings refer to any fats, used in baking or frying, in order to tenderize the final product and make it richer and / or flakier. Shortenings are made from refined vegetable oils that have been partially hydrogenated, and include products like butter, lard, and margarine.
Soya Beans (Soybeans)
Soybeans / Soya beans are legumes that are high in protein, fiber and fatty acids, as well as being a good source of vitamins and minerals. Soybeans have been recognized to provide considerable health benefits, including reducing LDL cholesterol and acting as an anti-oxidant. Soybeans are used in the production of tofu, milk, and soy sauce and their extracts are used in margarine and as emulsifiers in processed foods.
Spray drying requires the product to be dried, to be dispersed into a stream of hot air. The dry particles are then separated and collected. Spray drying is often used to dry juices and products that are easily damaged by heat and oxidation.
Stabilizers are substances or chemicals that allow food ingredients, which do not mix well, to remain in a homogenous state after blending.
Sterilization is the process of removing all living cells, micro-organisms, pathogenic bacteria and spores from a product. This is usually done by subjecting the product to dry heat or pressure steaming.
Sucrose is a sugar composed of two molecules, one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Sucrose is commonly found in sugar cane and most fruit and vegetables.
The term surfactant is a condensation of ‘surface active agent’. Surfactants are substances that are used to adjust the surface properties, and surface tension, of the liquid or solid to which it is applied. Emulsifiers, detergents, foam inhibitors and wetting agents are all examples of surfactants.
Vitamins are nutritive substances essential to normal growth and maintenance of life. They regulate the metabolic process, converting carbohydrates and fat into energy, and forming tissue and bone. The body cannot create vitamins itself, and is reliant on dietary intake to provide vitamins. Vitamins are frequently added to foods to increase their nutritional value.
Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide gum that is commonly used as a natural thickener and emulsifier. Xanthan gum is produced through the fermentation of corn sugar, and is widely used in food and cosmetics production.