Free range. CSA. Natural. Organic. Non-GMO. These days, there are an almost overwhelming number of terms and concepts to keep straight where food is concerned, a byproduct of the desire amongst shoppers to “get back to basics” and eschew over-processed and over-packaged alternatives.
However, even the most food-obsessed among us — myself included, despite having spent the last eight years working in the food industry at institutions and start-ups alike — can struggle to keep track of what’s what when it’s time to make an actual decision in the supermarket aisle.
With that in mind, I’ve pulled together a small primer to empower you to learn more about our food system to make the choices that are right for you.
Food 101: Terms
- Antibiotic-Free: This meat (and therefore the livestock) is supposed to be free of any antibiotic residue. Antibiotics are used to artificially stimulate growth and production in animals or treat ill animals; public concern on this issue has been that animals are more likely to need antibiotics if they’re living in inhumane conditions.
- Foraged: Anything that’s harvested straight from the wild, and has not been planted or encouraged by any kind of farming. Foraged food is super fresh, and hasn’t been bred or developed for visual characteristics (shiny red apples, or perfectly yellow cobs of corn) over nutrition. However, it can be more expensive and harder to obtain — try farmers markets! —, and is regulated on a state-by-state basis.
- Free-Range: This term isn’t regulated where eggs are concerned, but for chicken meat, it refers to any poultry not raised in confined spaces. This can be applied to birds that receive as little as 5 minutes a day open air access to a concrete yard. Likewise, anything with the label “cage-free”, while regulated, simply means the birds weren’t kept in cages, but doesn’t say anything about how much space or time outside they’re given. Pasture-raised isn’t a regulated term, but if you see it paired with Certified Humane, it means the chickens were given real room to roam and fresh food to pick out.
- GMO: Stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Definitionally, GMOs are just plants that have been modified for desirable traits, and there’s not an inherent danger to this form of breeding produce. This is a complicated one — like any tool, companies can use GMOs to ill effect, creating invasive seeds, holding a monopoly on a market, or not considering potential long-term health effects.
- Grass-fed: This term refers to livestock that has been encouraged to roam, and is supplied their forage, protein, and energy through pasturing rather than high-grain diets. Grass-fed beef has less fat and more heart-healthy Omega-3s and antioxidants than grain-fed beef, and it’s thought to have less of an environmental impact, too.
- Hormone-Free: This meat (and therefore the livestock) is supposed to be free of any hormone residue. Hormones are used to artificially stimulate growth and production in animals and are often seen in conjunction with inhumane conditions for animals.
- Humanely Raised: Definitions vary, but this more or less means that livestock was treated humanely from birth to slaughter, on farms with decent living conditions that met the animals’ natural needs. Because this isn’t a regulated term, it’s important to understand the exact practices of the farm you’re buying from, or look for the seal of one of the humane certification programs with strong standards.
- Natural: Anything that’s labeled “natural” isn’t supposed to contain artificial colors, preservatives, or ingredients. Because this term isn’t regulated (yet) and can primarily be used for marketing purposes, make sure to look for other terms with more concrete definitions to find what you need.
- Organic: Anything labeled as Certified Organic meets the USDA’s standards; however, these items may still be treated with synthetics or be GMO. As a term, it has a complex history — championed in the US in the ‘40s, the word “organic” has diverged from the type of farming it was originally meant to stand for. The systems and regulations imposed and the financial barrier both prevent many small or independent farms from getting certified. Still, generally speaking, organic farms avoid or largely exclude the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives.
- Pasteurized vs Unpasteurized: Pasteurization is a term commonly used to describe dairy products, and is a process of partial sterilization, typically involving heat. In the US, any milk product aged less than 60 days must be pasteurized. The current belief is that pasteurization reduces the risk of harmful bacteria in dairy products, although some proponents of raw milk suggest the process removes helpful bacteria, as well.
Food 101: Concepts
- Biodiversity: All of the plants and animals and everything else living in a certain area, in the context of how they interact with their environment. A term that often goes hand-in-hand with biodiversity is “local food system,” which is a holistic approach to sustainable food production, distribution, and consumption meant to improve the environment and social health of a given area. They can help increase biodiversity through things like seed vaults and heritage animal breeds, which in turn improves productivity in that area!
- CSA: Stands for Community Supported Agriculture; this is a system that connects people directly to their farmers. Typically, members will pay up front for a “share” of produce throughout the season, thereby providing a farm dependable support early in the growing season.
- Food Miles: This is the distance food travels from where it’s grown, raised, or cooked to where it’s picked up by the consumer. The less distance food has to travel the more resources are conserved, the fewer CO2 emissions, and the fresher the food.
- IFS: Stands for Integrated Farming Systems, which are focused on producing food more efficiently. The goal with IFS is to better utilize natural, economic, and social resources to create more sustainable food systems.
- IPM: Stands for Integrated Pest Management, which is when farmers work to control pests and weeds within the context of the environment. Instead of resorting to artificial sprays, farmers utilize tactics like minimizing the conditions pests live in, planting regionally appropriate produce, or using natural predators, all of which are better for the land, produce, and animals.
- Natural Farming: This is an ecological farming approach also known as “do-nothing” farming. The goal is to work within the context of the land and encourage biodiversity, which in turn improves the health and productivity of the land.
All of these terms and ideas come with their own wealth of historical context, and I encourage you to learn more about the ones that matter to you. If you’re looking for an easy jumping off point, check out some of the Good Companies in our Food & Drink section to get started!
By Kate Andersen