Natural, Organic, Free Range: What Does it Really Mean?

So many words on so many food labels. In episode 160, we are breaking down what some of these keywords mean do they matter? Starting off with organic food.

To be considered organic, plants must be harvested from soil that is free from “prohibited substances” for three years.  Here are more facts on organic foods:

  • Prohibited substances and/or practices includes pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, artificial colors, preservatives or flavors.

  • Certified organic meat requires a farming environment that supports the animal's natural conduct. Such as the ability to roam and graze on an open field.

  • If it says “made with organic" 70% of the product has organic ingredients. However, it will not contain the USDA organic seal.

  • Organic farms are inspected annually to maintain organic seal of approval.  

We’ve shared the dirty dozen and clean fifteen before which are the produce items found to have the most and least pesticide residue on them after cleaning. Here’s the current list.

The Clean  Fifteen: Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes.

These are the those with the most pesticide residue: apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes.

Then, there’s that natural word you see on so many labels.  

Seeing the word "natural" on a food label might make us feel that the food is healthier to eat.  Natural doesn't have a clear definition by the Food and Drug Administration and therefore is added to many food packages, whether truly a healthy item or not.  Here are some tips for shopping for natural foods:

  1. Understand that sugar is natural.  Do not assume that a food labeled "natural" is low or sugar-free.  Sugar comes from plants like beets and sugar cane typically which are natural but unhealthy in large portions.

  2. Applesauce labeled "natural" typically means it has no added sugar.  Regular applesauce has sugar or high fructose corn syrup added to it.  If you are looking for a healthier applesauce, this is one instance where you should look for "natural" on the label. It could also be labeled as "unsweetened."  To be sure, check the ingredients.

  3. The USDA has it's own guidelines for the term "natural" on meats and poultry.  According the the USDA, a natural product is one that contains no artificial ingredients or added color.  The product also can be only minimally processed.  The label has to explain the term natural, such as "no added dyes or coloring, minimally processed."

  4. If you want to include more "natural" foods in your diet, include more fresh and frozen produce, fresh meats, fish and poultry, potatoes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices in your meals.

What Are You Really Getting When You Buy Eggs?

There are many choices for eggs and in a variety of price ranges. Here is the difference between the options:

  • Organic: the hens have received organic feed that did not contain animal byproducts, synthetic fertilizers, and most pesticides and they were not raised in cages. Antibiotics may be given in the event of an infection. Growth hormones are banned in poultry, but antibiotics are not.  Organic does not necessarily mean humane treatment. The hens' outdoor access may be very limited.

  • Omega-3 enriched: The hens' diet was high in omega-3, such as flaxseed to boost the omega-3 content of the eggs, like a Egglands Best.

  • Free-range means the hens were raised outdoors or given outdoor access. The hens may also eat wild plants or insects in addition to the grains they are given. There’s no standard of the outdoor area and how often the hens can access to it. 

  • Cage-free: The hens are not bound by cages and have unlimited access to food and water. The barns can still be overcrowded, and conditions may not be ideal.

If you want eggs from hens in ideal conditions look for the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) label. They combine organic feed with humane living conditions and handling. You can also look for a local farmer and ask to visit their farm. Many CSAs include local eggs or check with neighbors. You might have someone who has a source of eggs right now backyard and they have plenty to share.

If you’re not sold on organic and definitely not sold not sold on the price of organic, focus on making meals that are simple, whole food based. Summer is a great time to do salsas and sauces for grilled chicken or shrimp that have fresh fruit, lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Super simple and really good. Try a mango salsa with chopped mango, red bell pepper, tomatoes, jalapeños, lime juice, olive oil salt and pepper. And if you're like Mindy, throw in some black beans because, fiber.

Listen to the full episode here.