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
The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and UConn Extension have been collaborating thanks to a U.S.D.A. Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program to enhance agricultural production, food security, and health of tribal community members.
This article will review the health and cooking properties of oils available in markets.
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)
Has a distinctive nutty flavor; don’t use if allergic to nuts
Has a sweet aroma
Bold, strong flavor; don’t use if allergic to nuts
High in saturated fat; not recommended.
Look for high oleic versions – higher in mono-unsaturated fat.
Very clean flavored and palatable
Good for frying and stir-frying
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)
Contains good levels of Omega-3;good all-purpose oil
High in Omega-6
Bold flavor, don’t use if allergic to nuts
Extra virgin olive
Good all –purpose oil
Great for stir frying, don’t use if allergic to nuts
Medium Smoke Point (Best suited for light sautéing, sauces and low-heat baking)
High in Omega-6, high mono-unsaturated versions coming.
Good source of Omega-3. Keep refrigerated
Rich nutty flavor, keep refrigerated
High in Omega-6
Good source of Omega- 3
High in saturated fat; use in moderation.
No – Heat Oils (Best used for dressings, dips or marinades)
Excellent source of alpha-linoleic acid, a form of Omega -3
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.
If you’re an average Connecticut resident, you probably didn’t eat seafood more than once in the last week.
But you might, if you knew more about how to prepare different types of fish, shellfish and seaweed, and where to buy local seafood. You’d also be inclined to have seafood more often if you knew more about its safety.
Those are some of the key findings of the Connecticut Seafood Survey, a 2½-year project to better understand current eating habits and how best to make of all types of seafood – but especially the shellfish, seaweed and fish from local waters – a more frequent part of state residents’ diets. Half the residents surveyed said they eat seafood just once a week – which is out of sync with the Food & Drug Administration’s recommendations. The FDA says adults should eat two or more servings per week to get all the nutritional benefits their bodies need.
The Peoples Harvest Garden in Pomfret is just one of the tremendous projects that UConn Extension Master Gardeners and UConn Extension support and participate in. The garden was started by the Windham County Master Gardeners in 2005, is still going strong, and all produce grown is donated to local kitchens that serve those in need. Typical totals for the season are between three and four thousand pounds of fresh produce. The garden serves as a demonstration project for food security an a destination for local schools to volunteer. Using natural practices, shoestring budget, and a lot of effort- the garden also demonstrates effective use of pollinator pathways and proper cultural practices for vegetable crops.
A study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reveals that individuals are putting themselves at risk of illness when they wash or rinse raw poultry.
“Cooking and mealtime is a special occasion for all of us as we come together with our families and friends,” said Dr. Mindy Brashears, the USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. “However, the public health implications of these findings should be of concern to everyone. Even when consumers think they are effectively cleaning after washing poultry, this study shows that bacteria can easily spread to other surfaces and foods. The best practice is not to wash poultry.”
The results of the observational study showed how easy bacteria can be spread when surfaces are not effectively cleaned and sanitized. The USDA is recommending three easy options to help prevent illness when preparing poultry, or meat, in your home.
1. Significantly decrease your risk by preparing foods that will not be cooked, such as vegetables and salads, BEFORE handling and preparing raw meat and poultry.
Of the participants who washed their raw poultry, 60 percent had bacteria in their sink after washing or rinsing the poultry. Even more concerning is that 14 percent still had bacteria in their sinks after they attempted to clean the sink.
26 percent of participants that washed raw poultry transferred bacteria from that raw poultry to their ready to eat salad lettuce.
2. Thoroughly clean and sanitize ANY surface that has potentially touched or been contaminated from raw meat and poultry, or their juices.
Of the participants that did not wash their raw poultry, 31 percent still managed to get bacteria from the raw poultry onto their salad lettuce.
This high rate of cross-contamination was likely due to a lack of effective handwashing and contamination of the sink and utensils.
Clean sinks and countertops with hot soapy water and then apply a sanitizer.
Wash hands immediately after handling raw meat and poultry. Wet your hands with water, lather with soap and then scrub your hands for 20 seconds.
3. Destroy any illness causing bacteria by cooking meat and poultry to a safe internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer.
Beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts and chops) are safe to eat at 145°F.
Ground meats (burgers) are safe to eat at 160°F.
Poultry (whole or ground) are safe to eat at 165°F.
Washing, rinsing, or brining meat and poultry in salt water, vinegar or lemon juice does not destroy bacteria. If there is anything on your raw poultry that you want to remove, pat the area with a damp paper towel and immediately wash your hands.
“Everyone has a role to play in preventing illness from food,” said Administrator Carmen Rottenberg of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). “Please keep in mind that children, older adults, and those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk. Washing or rinsing raw meat and poultry can increase your risk as bacteria spreads around your kitchen, but not washing your hands for 20 seconds immediately after handling those raw foods is just as dangerous.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that millions of Americans are sickened with foodborne illnesses each year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Have questions? Need more food safety information? Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MP-HOTLINE (1-888-674-6854). Live food safety experts are available Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time. Expert advice is also available 24/7 at AskKaren.gov.