Organic. All-natural. Grass-fed. Antibiotic and hormone free. Free range. Responsibly raised. Locally sourced.
What do these words mean, how are they related, and what’s the deal? The food industry markets products with a variety of adjectives that attract consumers. However, these adjectives are often confusing and misleading. So, what exactly does “organic” mean and what are the benefits to eating organic food?
The United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, describes organic agriculture as a product of farming techniques that use methods to preserve the environment. Organic agriculture avoids most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics in the process. The USDA also encourages farmers of organic agriculture to maintain a good quality of life for animals. Organic farmers must live up to the standards of the National Organic Program and are strictly regulated, making it a difficult and rigorous process to obtain the USDA organic seal. Because of the regulation involved, the USDA seal is a safe sign that the particular produce is void of pesticides, and the animal products are raised in a humane setting.
One unarguable benefit to eating organic food is the positive environmental impact compared to commercial farming methods. Organic farmers practice certain methods in order to preserve soil and water, reduce fertilizer runoff, and decrease the amount of chemical residue present. Creating compost piles for soil fertilizer, using energy efficient sprinkler systems, and planting a wide variety of crops to promote beneficial insects are just a few ways that organic farmers help maintain the soil.
Another term that is often confused with the meaning of organic is the word “natural.” Different varieties of the phrase “all-natural” can be found on a wide range of packaged foods. While it is generally used to describe minimally processed food , this term has no official guidelines to back the claim. Manufacturers do not require approval to utilize this adjective, and therefore, it can be used loosely. The benefits of eating foods that are labeled as all-natural are inconclusive, since there is no standard to back the term.
Grass-fed is a term that is related to beef. It means cattle is grass-fed up until euthanasia. The American Grassfed Association is a group that works in coordination with the USDA to provide a working definition of the term grass-fed. The AGA seal is similar to the USDA’s in that it ensures that certain standards are met in order to regulate manufacturer’s usage of the term. The AGA ensures that livestock have eaten nothing but grass, have not been raised in confinement, and also have not been fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Meat that is grass-fed is generally nutrient-dense. A grass diet reduces disease and discomfort among the animals and restores natural ecosystems.
Antibiotic and hormone free, responsibly raised, and free range are all related to meat and raising livestock in a healthy environment for the animals. When animals are confined in small, stressful spaces, packed together, and fed things their bodies were not meant to eat, animals easily become ill. Antibiotics are often given to sick animals to combat these conditions and keep them healthy. However, these antibiotics pass through their systems partially digested and eventually enter the environment through runoff. Bacteria then get the chance to interact with the antibiotics, and become more resistant. This poses a biological threat to both humans and animals alike. Hormones are given to the animals for a variety of reasons. For instance, cows are given growth hormone to stimulate a more constant milk production. This is an unnatural cycle and can be risky to the health of the cow. The USDA-certified organic label ensures that the meat product is antibiotic and hormone free.
Animals raised in a “free-range” setting are animals that are not constantly confined to a cage. Unfortunately, free-range farming is not regulated or backed with a label. “Responsibly raised” is another blanket term that is used to encompass an overall healthy lifestyle for the animals. This phrase is used more often by restaurants, and is just a general, unregulated idea of the quality of life of the meat. Eating meat products that are responsibly raised, free-range, and antibiotic or hormone-free is ensuring a less stressful environment for the animals.
Another term often used in restaurants is “locally sourced.” Food that is locally sourced promotes sustainability because it reduces the carbon footprint associated with imported food. Local food comes within a 150-mile radius. Because this new trend of knowing where food comes from is just beginning to bloom, there is no set regulation. Though, most restaurants that boast local food also advertise the farms they purchase from. Locally sourced food also promotes self-reliant food economies within the area, farmers within the area, and how it helps the environment.
Words are powerful. The food industry is in business to sell products, and these descriptors added to packaging often do the job for them. It is important to understand the usage and credibility of these words to ensure the quality of the product. Now, when you come across these words in the campus dining halls, restaurants, and grocery stores, you will be an educated consumer and will not be fooled by marketing tactics!
Photo Credit: Laura Asbury