Advertisers slap environmental buzz words all over their products, hoping to entice you as you wander around the grocery store. But now that “being green” is becoming mainstream, I think it’s time we all properly understand the eco-vernacular…especially when it comes to food. Here are the top five eco-adjectives I’ve seen being tossed around, and what they actually mean.
Probably the most commonly used buzz word, organic refers to the process through which something is grown. For produce, it means it was grown free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, etc. For animal bi-products like meat or dairy, it refers to not treating with antibiotics or growth hormones. Be sure to look for the USDA organic seal here! But don’t let the label fool you, the term doesn’t address the conditions that the animals were raised in or if the process was environmentally friendly.
Cage-Free or Free-Range
Both terms essentially mean the same things – the animals are not constricted to cages. But be wary here too, it sounds like they are free to roam about grassy fields for days on end, but the reality is far less pleasant. Most cage-free or free-range poultry is contained within a barn and has limited, if any, access to the outside. And because there is no third-party auditing, this term gets thrown around quite loosely.
Ideally, cattle would feed on grass their entire lives, but corn and grain are far cheaper to produce and often become the majority of a cow’s diet. Nutritionally, grass-fed cattle produce beef with less saturated fat and more nutrients than grain-finished beef. Grass-fed beef ensures that the animal has an grass-and-hay-only diet and has access to a pasture year-round. Just like organic, look for a USDA seal here as well.
Here is perhaps the most vague of all the eco-buzz words. Sustainable is NOT a certified label or official policy. It can be used to refer to anything from an environmentally-friendly growing structure to an energy efficient production method to eco-friendly packaging. The term is an ad hoc device, a catch-all used in marketing to appear “greener” and rally consumers’ support.
Local food, be it produce or otherwise, refers to food produced or grown within a certain distance of you as a consumer, the thought in this being that consumers are pledging support for your local economy and cutting down on your food’s carbon footprint. Unfortunately, there is no set definition of what distance qualifies something as local – so use the term as a clue to check where exactly the food is coming from and then decide about your purchase.
I know all these definitions seem rather skeptical, but I think it’s important that consumers are wary of the products they purchase. Supporting better products, means better products will be provided – it’s simple supply and demand. So demand food that’s not only good for your but also good for the environment.