Where can we get healthy food? Dr. German Cutz, one of our Extension educators, discusses urban agriculture as one option as we use innovative technology and new methods to grow food for our families and communities.
Video: Mike Zaritheny
Article by Heather Pease, Extension educator, UConn EFNEP
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:
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.
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
http://eatlocalgrown.com/article/12735 – what do-organic-natural-cage-free
Article by Sherry Gray, UConn Extension Educator
With so many cooking oils to choose from, it can be confusing which ones are heart-healthy and which ones are not. Cooking oils include plant, animal or synthetic fats used in frying, baking and other types of cooking. Oils are also used as ingredients in commercially prepared foods, and condiments, such as salad dressings and dips. Although cooking oils are typically liquid, some that contain saturated fat such as coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil are solid at room temperature.
Health and Nutrition
The Food and Drug Administration recommends that 30% or less of calories from the foods you eat daily should be from fat and fewer than 7% from saturated fat. Saturated fat is found in animal and dairy products as well as the tropical oils (coconut, palm and palm kernel oil). The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and World Heart Foundation have recommended that saturated fats be replaced with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Olive and canola oils are good sources of monounsaturated fats while soybean and sunflower oils are rich in polyunsaturated fat. Oils high in unsaturated fats may help to lower ”bad” Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and may raise “good” High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
Omega- 3 and Omega- 6 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential fatty acids – we cannot make them on our own and must get them from the foods we eat. Both are polyunsaturated fatty acids that differ from each other in their chemical structure. In modern diets, there are few sources of Omega -3 fatty acids, mainly the fat of cold water fish such as salmon and sardines. Vegetarian sources such as walnuts and flaxseeds contain a precursor of Omega-3 that the body must convert to a useable form. Keep in mind that Omega-3 fats from marine sources, such as fish and shellfish have much more powerful health benefits than Omega-3 fats from plant sources. By contrast, there are abundant sources of Omega-6 fatty acids in our diets. They are found in seeds and nuts and the oils extracted from them. Refined vegetable oils, such as soy oil, are used in most of the snack foods, cookies, crackers and sweets in the American diet as well as in fast food. Most Americans get far too much Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3 so it is recommended to eat more foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids.
Unlike other dietary fats, trans fats are not essential and they do not promote good health. Consumption of trans fats increases one’s risk of heart disease by raising levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowering levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. Trans fats are artificially created by the process of hydrogenation that turns liquid oils into solid fats. Trans fat formed naturally is found in small amounts in some animal products, such as meat and dairy products. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration, took action to significantly reduce the use of partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats formed artificially during food processing are often found in commercial baked goods, crackers, and fried foods, as well as shortening and some margarines. When the label of ingredients says “partially hydrogenated”, it’s probably likely to contain trans fats. The Nutrition Facts label lists trans fats per serving.
Cooking with Oil
Heating oil changes its characteristics so it is important to know the smoke point – the point at which an oil begins to break down structurally, producing unhealthful by-products such as free radicals. Oils that are healthy at room temperature can become unhealthy when heated above certain temperatures. When choosing a cooking oil, it is important to match the oil’s heat tolerance with the cooking method. Generally, the more refined the oil, the higher it’s smoke point.
High Smoke Point (Best for searing, browning and deep frying)
|Oil||% Mono||%Poly||% Saturated||Notes|
|Almond||65||28||7||Has a distinctive nutty flavor; don’t use if allergic to nuts|
|Avocado||65||18||17||Has a sweet aroma|
|Hazelnut||82||11||7||Bold, strong flavor; don’t use if allergic to nuts|
|Palm||38||10||52||High in saturated fat; not recommended.|
|82||9||9||Look for high oleic versions – higher in mono-unsaturated fat.|
|Rice Bran||47||33||20||Very clean flavored and palatable|
|Tea Seed||60||18||22||Good for frying and stir-frying|
|“Light”/refined Olive||73||11||14||The more refined the olive oil the better its all-purpose cooking use. “Light” refers to color.|
Medium – High Smoke Point (Best suited for baking, oven cooking or stir frying)
|Canola||62||31||7||Contains good levels of Omega-3;good all-purpose oil|
|Grapeseed||17||73||10||High in Omega-6|
|Macadamia nut||84||3||13||Bold flavor, don’t use if allergic to nuts|
|Extra virgin olive||73||11||14||Good all –purpose oil|
|Peanut||48||34||18||Great for stir frying, don’t use if allergic to nuts|
Medium Smoke Point (Best suited for light sautéing, sauces and low-heat baking)
|Corn||25||62||13||High in Omega-6, high mono-unsaturated versions coming.|
|Hemp||15||75||10||Good source of Omega-3. Keep refrigerated|
|Pumpkin Seed||36||57||8||Contains Omega-3|
|Sesame||41||44||15||Rich nutty flavor, keep refrigerated|
|Soybean||25||60||15||High in Omega-6|
|Walnut||23||63||9||Good source of Omega- 3|
|Coconut||6||2||92||High in saturated fat; use in moderation.|
No – Heat Oils (Best used for dressings, dips or marinades)
|21||68||11||Excellent source of alpha-linoleic acid, a form of Omega -3|
|Wheat germ||65||18||17||Rich in Omega-6. Keep refrigerated.|
Different oils stay fresh for different amounts of time, but you must store them all carefully. They should be tightly covered and stored in the dark away from heat. The less access to air, the fresher they will stay. Refrigeration benefits most oils. If unopened, peanut oil, corn oil, and other vegetable oils will keep for at least a year. Once opened, they are good for 4-6 months. Olive oil will keep for about 6 months in a cool, dark pantry but up to a year in the refrigerator. Walnut oil and sesame oil are delicate and inclined to turn rancid. Keep in the refrigerator and they will stay fresh for 2-4 months. It is best to purchase smaller bottles of oil if not used extensively.
Proper Disposal of Used Cooking Oil
Proper disposal of used cooking oil is an important waste-management concern. A single gallon of oil can contaminate as much as 1 million gallons of water. Oils can congeal in pipes causing major blockages. Cooking oil should never be dumped in the kitchen sink or in the toilet bowl. The proper way to dispose of oil is to put it in a sealed, non-recyclable container and discard it with regular garbage.
Article by: Sherry Gray MPH, RD
Extension Educator, UConn EFNEP
Often people open up their refrigerators, cupboards and cabinets to find foods that are beyond their sell- buy and use- buy dates. While it is always better to be safe than sorry, the following guidelines and information should help to take the guesswork out of determining whether or not your food is safe to eat.
Dating is not required by US Federal law, with the exception of infant formula and baby foods which must be withdrawn by their expiration date. For all other foods, except dairy products in some states, freshness dating is strictly voluntary on the part of manufacturers. For meat, poultry, and egg products under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), dates may be voluntarily applied provided they are not misleading and labeled in a manner that is in compliance with FSIS regulations. Also stores are not legally required to remove outdated products from their shelves. In order to ensure you getting the freshest food, it is necessary to scrutinize packaging and purchase the items with the most recent date. Although most markets are good about rotating their stock, some are not. If a store is properly stocked, the freshest items will be at the back of the shelf or underneath older items.
So what do these terms mean for consumers?
* Expiration Date: If you have a product with an expired expiration date, throw it out. While other dating terms are used as a basic guideline, this one is absolute.
*Best if Used-By and Use-By date:
“Use-By” or: Best if Used By” dates are a suggestion for when the food item will be at its best quality. Food is generally safe if consumed past this date, but may have deteriorated in flavor, texture, or appearance. “Use- By” dates are most often found on canned goods, dry goods, condiments, or other shelf stable items. The Food and Drug Administration is supporting the food industry’s efforts to standardize the use of this on its packaged food labeling.
Many fresh or prepared foods are labeled with a “Sell-By” date as a guide for how long the item should be displayed for sale before quality deteriorates. Items are generally safe for consumption after this date, but may begin to lose flavor or eye appeal. “Sell-By” dates are chosen with the assumption that the buyer may store or eat the item a few days after purchase. To be sure your food is fresh and will keep at home, it is best not to buy items that are past their “ sell by” date.
This date is often used for perishable baked goods. Beyond this date, freshness is no longer guaranteed, although it may still be edible.
This is the date the item was packed, most often used on canned and boxed items. It is usually in the form of a code and not easy to decipher. It may be coded by month(M), day (D) and year (Y) such as YYMMDD or MMDDYY. Or it may be coded using Julian numbers, where January 1 would be 001 and December 31 would be 365. These time stamps are generally a reference to the date, time, and location of the manufacture and not be confused with expiration dates. “Sell-By” or “ Best-By” may also be included on the can code.
So all of this assumes foods are stored at the right temperature. Foods not refrigerated properly – whether at home or at the store – wont keep as long regardless of what the freshness date says. So how long are foods good after the package date? According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:
Cooking or freezing extends the amount of time a food will keep. Use your eyes and nose too, to determine if foods are fresh, regardless of the date on the package.
So here are some food storage hints and tips:
Article by: Sherry Gray, MPH, RD, Extension Educator, UConn EFNEP
Updated: September 30, 2019
Send your soil sample in for testing now. Our standard nutrient analysis includes pH, macro- and micro nutrients, a lead scan and as long as we know what you are growing, the results will contain limestone and fertilizer recommendations. The cost is $12/sample. You are welcome to come to the lab with your ‘one cup of soil’ but most people are content to simply place their sample in a zippered bag and mail it in. For details on submitting a sample, go to UConn Soil and Nutrient Laboratory.