Food Done Right: Food Label Primer

After rigorously researching the American industrial food system, I decided that the expansive season of summer required me to refocus my energy on highlighting and joyously promoting properly raised food.  Food Done Right will take us through my favorite season.

As I have been researching topics for the series, I noticed that I would be spending much of the time discussing food labels in each piece.  So, to kick off the series, a primer on deciphering labels.  Believe me, I have simplified this as much as possible!

Grocery Store Labels

Organic:  The USDA designation of organic is especially useful when you go to the grocery store, because it helps you to separate foods from those that might include genetic modification or harsh chemicals and solvents.  Single item organics, such as peaches or celery, require the familiar encircled USDA Organic label to be considered organic.  A sticker on your produce will contain a five-digit number beginning with 9.  When the product contains multiple ingredients, however, organic labeling becomes murky.

On a multi-ingredient product, the USDA Organic label means that the contents by weight are at least 95% organic.  To ensure that the contents of your package are wholly organic, you must have a label that certifies 100% Organic.  I have not seen many products that say this.  If a product is “made with organic ingredients,” that means it contains at least 75% organic ingredients.

Conventional:  The vast majority of produce in the United States is produced conventionally, meaning that chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and/or weedkillers were used to grow the food and control organisms that can kill the plant.  Conventional produce codes consist of four-digit numbers beginning with 3 or 4.  Packaged foods without a 100% organic label can contain conventional ingredients.

GM/GE:  Readers know that Live Nakedly says that genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) food is not food done right.  On single items, it is easy to know if your food is GM or GE.  Produce stickers will have a five-digit number beginning with 8.  Because of concerted efforts to prevent package labeling, it is hard to know whether your packaged food contains GM or GE ingredients.  Important to note, a very high percentage of soy and corn in the United States is genetically modified.  It can be refined into your food or used to feed animals.  Other notable GM/GE crops include cotton seed and rapeseed/canola, whose oils are used in many products.  You simply can’t know right now if the product you have contains GM/GE substances.

Local versus Organics

Sometimes your grocery store will feature products from a farm in your home region and trumpet their products.  Local does not mean organic, but it doesn’t mean it’s not organic.  Well, officially according to the USDA it might not be organic, but the local farm might produce their food using organic principles.

Some small scale farms are unable to pay the fees for organic certification or find the process too onerous to go through.  Therefore, it is important for you to learn about your local farmers and the procedures they use.  Some indeed do jump through the hoops for government qualification and are allowed to use the organic label.  Others might use pesticides or chemical fertilizers like other conventional growers.

The Food Alliance offers third party certification.  This organization seeks to encourage environmental stewardship, enhance the conditions and pay for workers, and reduce pesticide use.  Therefore, this certification does not necessarily mean that the food is organic.


I realized the necessity for this primer as I started to write about eggs.  Chickens, alone, have several designations.

The first thing you should know about are the natural diets of animals, particularly the big three: pigs, cows, and chickens.  Pigs will graze and dig at roots.  Proper farmer Joel Salatin gets his pigs to aerate manure by throwing corn into the mix.  Chickens are omnivores, eating grubs, worms, bugs, pasture, and grains.  Cows are built to eat grasses; corn and soy make them ill and are not proper feeds for them.

Knowing this, we can now navigate the meat cooler.  A vegetarian diet might deprive chickens of their carnivorous inclinations and could mean that cows are being fed soy and corn.  What this would ensure, however, is that these animals are not being fed animal parts or waste products, which happens in conventional farming.  Similarly, organic animals are fed organic feed; it does not mean the feed is the best type for them.  Of course, you want your animal foods to be hormone free and antibiotic free, so these substances don’t pass into your diet.

Regarding animal treatment, I believe that a happy animal will produce higher quality food products.  Cage free animals do not live in cages.  They still might be crowded into a barn and never see the light of day.  When they live in close quarters, they could be susceptible to disease.  If they are chickens, they might have their beaks altered since cramped arrangements breed contempt.  Free range animals, to my surprise, do not have to go outside to be given this designation.  The farm just needs to provide a door for them to leave and roam around, but sometimes the animals will not go outside.  The words “free range” provide the image of animals cavorting in nature; ideally, they would be.  This is not the case.  Pastured animals are given access to grass and dirt and sun and wind.  Generally, if the animal is granted this, you will find that they house the animals honorably as well.  Still, you will want to be sure, so look for the other designations on the label.

A grass-fed farm animal grazes on vegetation, it’s natural diet.  Make sure it has the official designation of being “grass-fed,” because conventional cows will eat grasses until they near the end of their lives.  Then they are fattened up using the grains that are bad for their stomachs to create the marbling that we’re told make them juicy and tasty.  Feedlots have been notoriously cruel to the animals, cramping them in small spaces among waste.  To avoid confusion, farmers that feed cows their natural diet have started referring to their beef as being grass-finished.  If the cow did not go to a feedlot, it has a better chance of having lived a decent life.

Wild caught fish feed on what nature provides.  Sometimes nature is polluted with mercury that moves into a wild fish, so accessing a list that highlights fish that don’t retain this poison is the best way to ensure your health.  In the wild, some fish are overfished and put in danger.  Information about your supplier and endangered fish will help you make conscious decisions.  Farmed fish are given feed, kept in tanks or cages in concentrations greater than that in the wild, often have artificial coloring added (as happens with salmon), and do not live the normal life of a fish before being caught.  They can also be genetically engineered (as happens with salmon).  Sometimes, farmed fish are sold as wild caught even though they are not.  Food and Water Watch summarizes all the possible issues on their website.

Moving Forward, Food Done Right

Future articles will discuss why certain modes of growing create more beneficial food products for us all.  In those articles, you will see some of these terms and I will provide a link back to this piece in case it gets confusing.  It really is a maze.

Lastly, there is one word that could just be spoken as gibberish, because it means nothing to your health, says nothing about the growing procedure, and reveals nothing about animal treatment.  That word is natural.  Depending on your perspective, GE corn could be natural; a pesticide sprayed apple could be natural; a chicken on a vegetarian diet could be natural; or an organic, pastured, grass-finished, cage free slice of roast beef could be natural.  The term is not specific and you will find that the less good it is for the health of all involved, the more likely that will be the term, if any, that appears on the label.

The ideal scenario for everyone along our food chain is for consumers to engage directly with farmers or their representatives at farm stands or farmers markets.  More markets are springing up on weekends, which lets workers, the majority of us, have a chance to meet those who feed us.  Learning the process fosters a relationship that could be long lasting and encourages the procedures that will produce food done right.

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