What do labels really mean? Organic, Natural, Cage-Free, Grass-Fed, Pasture-Raised and Local
You have probably seen these terms on food labels and in the news, but what do they really mean? And how important is buying organic and natural foods when it comes to healthy eating. Some terms are helpful and others are misleading. So, let’s look at some of these terms to see what they really mean.
The term “natural” broadly means minimally processed and free of synthetic dyes, coloring, flavorings and preservatives. These foods can still contain such ingredients as high fructose corn syrup and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). Natural is largely unregulated by the USDA for most foods except meat, poultry and egg products. Foods containing meat, poultry, or eggs must be minimally processed and free of artificial ingredients in order to be labeled “natural”. However these animals may be given antibiotics, growth hormone, and fed GMO feed.
Organic claims on food products are regulated by the USDA. Organic foods must be produced without the use of most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering. These foods are also produced using methods that promote the conservation of our natural resources.
Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. These animals also must be raised in living conditions that encourage natural behaviors such as the ability to graze on pastures and are fed 100% organic feed. This makes it less likely that these animals will carry disease or create antibiotic –resistant strains of bacteria.
Organic crops must be grown in safe soil, have no modifications and must remain separate from conventionally grown crops. Farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers and sewage sludge –based fertilizers. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organization that provides and annual list called the “dirty dozen”. The list names 12 fruits and vegetables found to be highest in pesticide residues based on laboratory tests from the USDA. The dirty dozen currently includes apples, celery, tomatoes, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, kale, pears, cherries, and potatoes. However, 2016 FDA residue findings suggest, particularly for domestically produced foods, that pesticide applications generally demonstrate compliance with legal and established agricultural practices. The majority of samples tested contained no detectable pesticide residues while any detected residues were typically present at levels far below the tolerance levels. This testing was conducted on produce that was not labeled organic.
In the United States there are 3 levels of organic claims:
100 –percent Organic. Products that are completely organic or made of only organic ingredients qualify for this claim and a USDA Organic seal.
Products in which at least 95 percent of its ingredients are organic qualify for this claim and a USDA Organic seal.
Made with Organic ingredients. These are food products in which at least 70 percent of ingredients are certified organic. The USDA Organic seal cannot be used but “made with organic ingredients” may appear on its packaging.
Grass –fed and grass- finished or 100% grass-fed.
If an animal is grass- fed and grass-finished then their feed was composed entirely of grass, legumes, and green vegetation up until the animal was slaughtered. However, this label does not address the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. USDA defines “grass fed” as it applies to labeling but does not regulate it in any way. So when shopping for meat, you need to make sure you are getting 100% Organic, Grass-Fed meat. Grass-fed beef is leaner and has been shown to have healthier omega-3 fatty acids.
This term simply indicates that animals were not kept in cages. They are still in an enclosed facility, but with unlimited access to food and fresh water. The facility; however; could be very small and crowded with little room to move about. This health claim does not mean that animals were free to roam in pastures or that they had access to the outdoors. Many cage-free claims are not certified, making it a misleading label.
USDA has approved this term for animals that were raised in a sheltered facility with unlimited access to food, water, and access to the outdoors. It does not indicate that the animal went outside in its lifetime, only that there was a door to the outside. The term does not specify the outdoor conditions, but pastures are permitted to be fenced and covered in netting.
Pasture – Raised
USDA has not developed a definition for this term yet; however; many farmers use it to distinguish themselves from “free range” farms. Animals are free to roam outdoors with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and indoor shelter in case of bad weather. This differs from “free range” in that pasture-raised animals spend more time outdoors than indoors. This is the most ideal label to look for when choosing chicken and eggs. Often these animals are not given growth hormone or antibiotics, but you need to ask to be 100% sure.
What is local food? Unlike organic standards, there is no specific definition. Generally local food means food that was grown close to home. This could be in your own garden, your local community, your state, or your region. People buy locally for the financial benefits, less transportation of the food and freshness of the food. Small local farmers often use organic methods, but sometimes cannot afford to become certified organic. Visit a farmers market and talk to the farmers. Find out how they produce the fruits and vegetables they sell.
In summary, it is important to look at claims on the foods that you buy to be sure you are getting what you want. Be aware of the differences in labels so that you know what you are buying, particularly if it costs you more than conventional foods.
Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) 2019. Interpreting Pesticide Residues in Food. Issue Paper 66. CAST. Ames, Iowa. www.cast-science.org
Fall is the quintessential time to visit a farm with apple and pear picking, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, cider donuts and so much more!
We will be celebrating local agriculture the whole month – CT Grown for CT Kids Week is October 7-11th with National School Lunch Week October 14-18th. Check out the National Farm to School month toolkit for wonderful ideas to celebrate the whole month!
“The mission statement of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation (MPTN) states they will ‘…establish a social, cultural and economic foundation that can never be undermined or destroyed…,’” says Tribal Councilor Daniel Menihan, Jr. MPTN was facing challenges growing their fruits and vegetables at a scale to meet the tribe’s needs on their land in Ledyard, and some members were struggling with diabetes.
UConn has enjoyed a long history of engagement with members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal community. Many members have graduated from UConn and served on the UConn Foundation Board, among others. Despite the fact that there is an Extension office only 10 miles from the reservation, MPTN has rarely participated in any educational outreach or training offered by UConn Extension.
UConn Extension received the four-year Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) grant from USDA-NIFA with the goal of having the tribe share their ideas for growing food and health, and help them learn about the Extension resources that are available. As a result of the grant, the relationship between MPTN and UConn is strengthening, and there is growth in agricultural production, food security, and health for the tribal people.
“MPTN is still learning, but they are now able to grow their own food, in what looks like a commercial setting,” states Shuresh Ghimire, PhD, Vegetable Crops Extension educator and principal investigator on the grant. “They have high tunnels, a rototiller, a plastic mulch layer, and cold storage, which are common tools for a commercial farm.”
Extension provides expertise through one-on-one consultation, and classroom and hands-on training on-site in a collaborative setting. Educational outreach addresses the following critical areas identified by the MPTN Council:
Improve food security
Improve economic viability
Improve youth engagement and communications
Improve nutrition and diabetes awareness through collaborative education
An Extension program involving several specialists in fruit and vegetable production, farm business management, marketing, 4-H youth development, health and nutrition, communications, evaluation and assessment is working with the MPTN on their goals. Tribal members are participating in other Extension programs, beyond the scope of the grant. A 4-H club is being established at MPTN to increase opportunities for youth.
“Once this grant came, we started working with UConn Extension Educators. There has been a substantial gain in the knowledge and skills regarding growing food, writing a business plan, nutrition, and health,” says Jeremy Whipple, a MPTN member.
Growing with MPTN
Extension provides education for MPTN in state-of-the-art sustainable vegetable and fruit production techniques, and through
collaboration with MPTN, is melded with traditional and historical tribal farming methods. This provides MPTN with a means to continue the richness of their history while moving into modern sustainable farming economically.
Tribal youth are included in all aspects of the agricultural venture with the tribe’s expectation that several youth will develop major roles in the business venture. Two tribal youth are being paid by the grant to work in vegetable production at MPTN.
“Learning how to grow tomatoes, including pest management, is one of the many things I enjoy working with on this grant” Ernest Pompey, one of the tribal youths working on this grant says. “I am excited to share what I learned about growing and eating healthy food to other youth in my community.”
“The tribe also established a community garden where they bring other youth from the community to teach them about growing. The knowledge is expanding within their own community, and they are teaching each other now,” Shuresh says.
UConn Extension’s nutrition team is working with the tribal community health providers to deliver educational programming in healthy eating and diabetes prevention using classroom education, and hands-on learning in the selection and preparing of healthy food, and exercise through gardening. The goal is to reduce the risk and incidence of diabetes in the tribal community.
“The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) utilizes a hands-on approach to nutrition education, combining nutrition knowledge with enhancement of skills to apply this knowledge to prepare healthy foods that are convenient, affordable and culturally appropriate,” says Mike Puglisi PhD, RD, state EFNEP director. “Erica Benvenuti, New London County nutrition educator, taught children in the MPTN High 5 Program the importance of food safety and increasing vegetable intake, and enhanced learning through getting the children involved in preparation of a traditional recipe prepared by the MPTN, the Three Sisters Rice recipe.”
The grant is starting its third year, and another Extension educator is working with tribal youth and adults in developing a business plan for the agricultural venture to increase their success rate. Youth and adults are also learning about their agricultural history and how it can successfully be integrated into today’s modern sustainable agriculture by combining classes with in-field learning experience.
“Ultimately, after the grant ends, MPTN’s farm will operate as a commercial vegetable farm would in terms of production and reaching out to Extension when they do need help. They will be independent, and continue growing their operation to support the goals of the tribal nation,” Shuresh states.
Under the USDA FRTEP grant we have with Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, on the morning August 15th, Erica Benvenuti, Mike Puglisi, and Alyssa Siegel-Miles of the UConn Extension EFNEP program conducted a food preparation workshop for the tribal youth. There were 13 teens and seven adults at the event. Erica and team did an excellent job engaging and teaching the youth to prepare three sisters meal – corn, squash and bean (tribe’s traditional meal) and salsa. The objective of the workshop was to teach the tribal youth the importance of healthy food and give hands-on training on food preparation (from washing hands to following recipe to serving food). This falls under our goal of improving the overall health of the tribal members. I personally very much enjoyed the workshop.
Submitted by Shuresh Ghimire, PhD, and PI on the grant
August is National Sandwich month! With school around the corner, it’s a great time to learn to make the PERFECT sandwich. Sandwiches are a quick, easy and an affordable way to pack in nutrition when hiking or biking too!
Start with a whole grain base and go from there! Next, add a protein source such as lean meats or plant proteins, like peanut butter or tofu. Then load up the fruits and veggies from lettuce and tomato to apples and cucumbers – the options are endless! Finish your sandwich with a spread or low-fat dressing.
This message is brought to you by the UConn Extension PATHS team – People Active on Trails for Health and Sustainability. We are an interdisciplinary team of University of Connecticut extension educators, faculty, and staff committed to understanding and promoting the benefits of trails and natural resources for health, community & economic development and implementing a social ecological approach to health education.
Lambing season rolls around every spring, and with it comes night lamb checks, fuzzy little faces bleating for mama, and hopefully, healthy ewes and lambs. But ensuring that those lambs and ewes are healthy at birth starts long before lambing occurs.
Our research group focuses on how the ewe’s diet while she is pregnant affects the growth and development of her lambs. When a ewe is provided excess or restricted nutrition during pregnancy, it affects her ability to support the proper development of her lambs. This is compounded when ewes carry larger litter sizes (2 or more lambs). Development of the lambs during gestation prepares those animals for growth after lambing. Ewes that are over- or under-fed during pregnancy produce lambs that ultimately end up with more fat and less muscle. This is undesirable because there is less meat produced and the animals are less healthy due to increased body fat. Further, lambs from poorly nourished ewes tend to have more connective tissue, resulting in tougher cuts of meat. But there are strategies that producers can easily employ to improve the health and productivity of their flocks.
Transabdominal ultrasound during early pregnancy (around day 30) can be performed with the ewe in the standing position, with little stress to the animal, and in less than 5 minutes per animal by a skilled technician. Ultrasound can provide critical information, such as how many lambs a ewe is carrying and, when appropriate fetal measurements (such as the length from the crown to the rump) are taken, an estimated due date can be calculated. Ewes with larger litter sizes require additional feed, but are also at greater risk for ketosis in late gestation. Identifying the number of offspring early will allow farmers to prevent complications during and after pregnancy.
Once litter size and estimated lambing date are known, flock managers can appropriately feed their ewes according to litter size and stage of gestation. Best practice suggests that ewes should be separated by litter size so that those carrying larger litters can be fed greater quantities of food. This prevents over-feeding ewes that are pregnant with singletons and under-feeding ewes that are pregnant with multiples. Ewes should be fed based on their stage of gestation (early-, mid-, late-), and the number of lambs they are carrying. Importantly, body condition should be monitored throughout gestation to ensure that ewes are carrying sufficient condition into lactation, so that they will be able to support their lambs after parturition. To ensure that the feed provided is appropriate, hay and grain analyses can provide flock managers with the nutrient content of their feedstuffs. Nutritional value can vary widely so it is recommended that each load of feed is analyzed. Feed analysis can be easily completed at several labs at relatively low cost. Determining how much feed to provide is based on nutrient requirements published by the National Research Council (https://www.nap.edu/read/11654/). There are also many online feed calculators available for sheep (https://www.sheepandgoat.com/rationsoftware).
Separating ewes by litter size also allows for closer monitoring of ewes with larger litter sizes that are predisposed to ketosis in late gestation. Ketosis is a common metabolic disorder that occurs during periods of extreme energy demands coupled with an inability to meet those demands. In ewes, this occurs most frequently during late gestation when lamb growth is the greatest. At-risk ewes can be monitored during the last four weeks of gestation for ketosis using a hand-held beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHBA) meter. Concentrations between 0.8 to 1.5 mmol/L are considered subclinical and indicate the need for close monitoring until parturition. Blood concentrations of BHBA greater than 1.6 mmol/L are considered indicative of clinical ketosis and would require veterinary attention.
Beyond understanding the effects of poor maternal nutrition during gestation on lambs, our research helps us understand how human babies who are born to over- or under-nourished mothers may be affected. Sheep are excellent models for human health research, as they have similar numbers of offspring and lambs are approximately the same weight at birth as babies. While there are certainly differences in human and sheep physiology, understanding how a mother’s diet influences her offspring’s growth and metabolism benefits both species. By improving ewe health and nutrition during pregnancy, producers will have better growing lambs with improved carcass characteristics. Improving mom’s health and nutrition during pregnancy will decrease the risk of her baby developing metabolic diseases such as diabetes later in life.
Celebrate our Nation’s Independence with Connecticut Grown Food
As you celebrate our nation’s independence this Fourth of July, choose Connecticut Grown foods for your holiday gatherings. “Farmers are the backbone of our nation and we are fortunate to have a diverse array of agriculture in Connecticut,” said Bryan P. Hurlburt, Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner. “Stop by your local farm store or farmers’ market as you prepare for the holiday weekend. Your purchase will support a local family business and nothing tastes as good as fresh, local, Connecticut Grown food on your picnic table.”
Berries are in full swing with blueberries and raspberries just starting and strawberries finishing up. Combine all three to create delicious desserts, salads and even breakfast casseroles. We’ve pulled together some of our favorite recipes from triple berry trifles to spinach berry salad on our Connecticut Grown Pinterest page with a “4th of July Treats” board featuring an array of red, white and blue dishes.
This holiday weekend also heralds the availability of sweet corn. While the early spring weather has put sweet corn a few days behind schedule, some farmers started picking this past weekend in anticipation of the upcoming holiday to stock farm stands. Others, like Dave Burnham of Burnham Farms in East Hartford, CT, will have it available this weekend. “Starting Saturday we will have sweet corn available,” he said. Stop by a farm stand or farmers’ market to pick up early butter and sugar sweet corn.
For the grill masters, Connecticut farmers offer a range of meats including chicken, lamb, and beef, as well as, bison and turkey. Whether you prefer wings, steak, burgers or sausage, rest assured there is something for everyone.
Use local honey or maple syrup to make your own marinade and toss together a salad using fresh Connecticut Grown greens as a healthy side. Find a meat, vegetable, honey and maple syrup producer near you at www.ctgrown.gov.
If a clambake is more your style, Connecticut’s coastline is home to an abundance of seafood, including oysters and clams. Shellfishing is an important component of Connecticut’s economy along with recreation and tourism industries. When selecting shellfish look for names such as Copps Island, Stella Mar, Mystics, and Ram Island or places including Fishers Island Sound, Noank, Norwalk and Thimble Islands.
Complete your appetizer trays with an award-winning Connecticut cheese and include ice cream, yogurt or milk from a Connecticut dairy farm family in your desserts. Don’t forget to visit a Connecticut farm winery or brewery for your favorite adult beverage to enjoy responsibly with friends and family.
From all of us at the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, we wish you a happy and safe Fourth of July celebration.
Article and photo: Connecticut Department of Agriculture
Fresh from the field, Connecticut Grown strawberries are now ripening and ready to eat. Strawberries are the first fruit available in Connecticut and signal the arrival of summer for many residents who look forward to visiting one of the state’s pick-your-own farms.
“Visiting a Connecticut strawberry patch to pick your own is a wholesome, family fun activity,” said Bryan P. Hurlburt, Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner. “This type of activity supports local farms and farm families while generating millions of dollars in agritourism for the state’s economy. And, the best part of it all is that you get fresh Connecticut Grown strawberries to eat at home.”
While it’s early in the season, producers are reporting that picking is quite good. “Despite the amount of record breaking rain in April and early May, the strawberries crop is now experiencing excellent weather for maturing to ripening. The season is off to a great start and it appears that the production will be right in line for a successful strawberry season,” said Nancy Barrett, owner of Scantic Valley Farm in Somers, CT.
It’s a good idea to call ahead, or check the farms website, for daily updates as weather conditions impact availability. Sweet and juicy strawberries are also available now at farmers’ markets and farm stands throughout the state. Find one near you at www.CTGrown.gov/strawberry.
When ripe, strawberries smell wonderful and taste even better. As members of the rose family, this perennial plant is a good source of vitamin C, manganese, folate, and potassium. They are also loaded with antioxidants.
Strawberries should be plump and firm with a bright red color and natural shine. The color and fragrance of the berry, not size, are the best indicators of flavor. Once you get your strawberries home, wash them and cut the stem away to store in a cool place. If you plan to keep them in the fridge for a few days, wait to clean them until you plan to eat them. Rinsing them speeds up spoiling.
Strawberries can be used to make jams, jellies, shortcake, pie and more. They can also be pickled, especially when picked green or unripe, or frozen to use later in smoothies. Find more recipe ideas to create your own delicious dishes by visiting our Pinterest page at https://www.pinterest.com/GrowCTAg/.
Make plans to visit a Connecticut strawberry patch this weekend to create lasting memories and delicious, healthy dishes.