Conserving water and recycling are two great ways to protect Mother Earth but making the effort to choose more environmental-friendly products and produce from the supermarket can also go a long way to help conserve our planet.
To help you sort through the sometimes-confusing "green" claims, my intern, Columbia University senior Sonal Kumar, helped me compile a list of terms commonly used on food labels. Here's the lowdown on the lingo:
When you see the circular "USDA Organic" logo on a package, it means that the food was produced according to strict practices that don't allow the use of synthetic flavors, colors, sweeteners, most preservatives, toxic or long-lasting pesticides and fertilizers, or methods like genetic engineering. The animals producing dairy or meat products do not consume antibiotics (unless they're sick) or growth hormones. While you may be overwhelmed by the wide selection of organic goods, remember to remain a conscious consumer when you are shopping. If you prefer organic, be sure your products have the official USDA Organic seal. Also keep in mind that the "organic" label doesn't always mean healthier or more nutritious. In fact, the FDA makes no claims these chemical-free versions of the conventional food product are any healthier for you.
This term is more of a free-for-all unless it's used on meat and poultry. On those labels, it indicates that no artificial flavorings or colorings were added and that the cut was not irradiated to reduce bacteria. But it doesn't tell you anything about how the animal was raised. And on products outside the meat case (things like granola bars and cereal), the term is unregulated and undefined. In other words, on those products, it doesn't mean anything.
Cage-Free or Free-Range
When you see this term on chicken or eggs, it means the bird has had access to the outdoors. According to The Humane Society of the US, laying hens are the most intensely confined animals in the agribusiness and cage-free producers offer animals a significantly improved level of welfare. Still, note that the USDA doesn't regulate how much time chickens must spend there or what kind of surface it must be (it could be cement) so while the term doesn't mean the hens were raised without any cruelty, there are certain welfare advantages.Locally Grown
Can you define "nearby"? Neither can federal regulators-there's no standard for descriptions as to how far food has traveled to reach your store. It's also important to remember that not all organic food is locally grown, nor is all locally grown food organic-even the vegetables and fruit you see at farmers' markets. One advantage to buying farmer's market fare: You can talk to the seller to find out how far the food has traveled and how it was produced. It's also a way of supporting nearby farmers and eating food when it's in season-when it's presumably freshest and tastiest.
Fair trade products are simply what their name suggests. In other words, this is a nonprofit effort to rightly compensate farmers and workers in developing countries for their work. The money you spend to purchase your daily food goods contribute to the financial well-being of a small community. According to Fair Trade USA, the effort began in 1940s to "reach out to poverty stricken communities to help them sell handicrafts." Now, the fair trade market has expanded to include more than just knitted and woven items. Look for fair trade tea, cocoa, honey, fruits, vegetables, sugar, grains, flowers, and wine.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
This is a private certification that ensures that farming methods conserve biodiversity, protect wildlife, curb climate change, and alleviate poverty by teaching farmers and forest managers how to manage their natural resources, negotiate better prices, and invest in a more economically secure future. You'll see this seal on anything from chocolate to wine to cookies to coffee.
Now that you're familiar with the terms, why not get cooking? Check out Genevieve's blog to see what she has to say about cooking with organic food.What labels do you look for at the grocery store? How have you changed your shopping habits to be more eco-friendly?
-By Samantha Cassetty, M.S., R.D.
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