Food labels: Major ingredient is confusion
Most visits to the grocery store these days leave me shaking my head in disbelief. I’m not referring to breaches of cellphone etiquette — I’m referring to the bewildering complexity of food labels.
It should be simple. Labels for fresh, natural food should say “fresh and natural,” and labels for frosted sugar-bomb cereals in neon colors should say ... well, what exactly should they say?
Some say “multi-grain” or “a source of dietary fiber” or some other catchphrase that makes these products sound good for you.
Consider some of the words used to identify our edibles and what they mean — or don’t mean. The term “certified organic” is a good starting place. It has a real definition, created and enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: grown or produced without the use of chemical fertilizers or additives.
That should be clear, right? But there is always wiggle room. “Organic” means that the product is 95 percent organic or higher. “Made with organic ingredients” means at least 70 percent organic, and some labels just say “made with organic oats.”
This gets more complicated when you consider that the organic label doesn’t say anything about how workers are treated and paid, or about living conditions for animals, or about how far the food traveled to get to our table.
In one possible scenario, New England organic yogurt could be made from organic milk from New Zealand processed into powdered milk, shipped to this country, reconstituted here and cultured into yogurt.
Organic? Yes, but not fitting our image of happy cows grazing on Vermont hillsides. To meet rising demand, organic fruits and vegetables are increasingly grown in China where labor is cheap and oversight is lax.
One telling food label reads “made with real fruit.” Close scrutiny of some “fruit beverages” reveals up to 10 percent fruit juice, with the remainder being water, sugar and flavorings. There was even a lawsuit over a strawberry fruit roll-up “made with real fruit” which contained pear concentrate — but nothing remotely resembling a strawberry.
Meat and poultry labeling is even more opaque, with such claims as “free range,” “pasture-raised,” “grass-fed” and “all natural.” These inspire visions of quaint family farms with clucking hens and cows named Daisy and Buttercup.
But “free range” means only that the animals have the opportunity to go outside and says nothing about the specifics of that opportunity. A huge factory farm housing 100,000 uncaged birds can have two small openings in the wall leading to a small fenced concrete pad. The birds are terrified to leave the security of the flock and don’t go near these strange openings, but because the opportunity is there they are “free range” chickens.
And “grass-fed” beef may never see a pasture but be packed into dusty feed lots and fed grass shipped from far away.
In recent years consumers rebelled against the revolting product that the beef packing industry refers to as “lean finely textured beef.” It consists of beef trimmings and scraps heated in a centrifuge to separate out the fats and then exposed to ammonia gas to kill bacteria.
The creamy glop, widely referred to as “pink slime,” was used as up to 25 percent filler in hamburger and other processed meats until public outcry cut back its use. Yet this “food product” can still be described as natural.
So what does “natural” really mean? Your guess is as good as mine. In theory natural food has no artificial preservatives, coloring or ingredients. But “all natural” products may still contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), high-fructose corn syrup, highly processed and refined ingredients — and be loaded with sugar, fat and calories.
What is a conscientious eater to do? Cultivate good relationships with farmers and growers and know where your food comes from. Shop at farmers markets, grow your own, and lobby Congress to create labeling requirements — when Congress figures out how to function.
Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is a green builder specializing in renovations and innovations, and a long-time organizer of SolarFest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.