Debunk the Labeling: How to find the highest quality food amongst all the marketing masks
Businesses thrive on sales. When it comes to a product-based industry, as the food industry, this is no different. In the eyes of business, the more a company sells off its food product(s) the better. Big food companies have big dollars to spend on doing just that. Teams dedicated to marketing, advertising, designing and selling, come together to produce not just a product but a story. Their job is to get you to like or identify with the story so that you will buy it. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that there is some misleading messaging. It’s your job as the consumer to pull back the curtain and see not just the story they’re trying to sell you, but the actual story of how your food was produced, raised, packaged and delivered.
There have been a number of “food stories” throughout our countries history; each one claiming to solve a problem or improve health. When the feminist movement hit the US the story became one of liberation. Fast food companies saw an opportunity and so the story was, we will take care of preparing wholesome meals for you and your family so women could join the workforce. The 80’s brought with it the demonization of saturated fats, which lead to the mass production of butter and oil alternatives and carbohydrate-rich diets. Now we seem to be coming to our senses a bit and seeing a shift towards more local, sustainable and organic foods. While this is a great shift, some big companies (not local and who don’t give a crap about organic) are not just going to sit there and let the sales of their products plummet. No, they are going to come up with a story, and they’re going to sell it. Those who aren’t savvy enough to sniff it out are going to buy. Here are some things to watch out for.
1. Just because it comes from Wholefoods, Trader Joe’s or some other Healthfood Store, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. While these companies provide much more local organic foods then many conventional grocery stores they still sell plenty of conventional, sugar-filled junk food. Be sure to read your labels. Look at ingredients. If you can’t pronounce it you probably shouldn’t eat it.
2. Just because it has a picture of a tree, flowers or a bunch of green on it, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Marketing companies know that “going green” has become more popular. As a result, the color green in particular images of nature are appearing in more regularity on the packaging. Find out what exactly they’re saying or communicating with these images. It could be absolutely nothing.
3. Be cautious of the term “natural.” This is a common phrase used to confuse you. “Made with natural ingredients”. What exactly are natural ingredients? What exactly are non-natural ingredients? Soy is a natural ingredient. It is also unless otherwise stated, conventionally grown, genetically modified and it’s natural properties could have devastating effects on parts of your endocrine system.
4. Cage-free and Free-range don’t mean much.
I know. . . I know, you weren’t expecting this one. Free-range could mean as little as there being a small door at the end of a massive coop house which opens to a small dirt patch that most of the birds at the back of the coop won't even know exists. Pasture-raised from small biodiverse farms are best. This means the chickens are out in a field scratching at the dirt, flapping their wings and eating grubs, seeds and bugs as they should.
5. Grass-fed is good but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Cows are supposed to eat grass, bottom line. If you buy grass-fed beef that’s better then most other diets conventionally raised cattle will have but it doesn’t speak to their environment. They could still be raised in small enclosures, or massive feedlots where they, eat, breathe and live in their own fecal matter. Your best option is pasture-raised from a smaller biodiverse farm. This means the cows are out in a pasture eating grass. What a novel idea.
6. Wild-caught fish is good. Wild-caught fish means just that. Fishing boats went out into the ocean and caught the fish. Pole caught for certain fish is even better.
7. Organic is good, beyond organic could be even better. Organic produce is better than conventional. Conventional produce has most likely been sprayed or treated with multiple synthetic fertilizers, weed killers, insecticides and more. This is not only toxic for human consumption is it also highly toxic to our planet. Beyond organic is a term created by Polyface Farm in Virginia. They go beyond the minimum requirements established to be certified organic. If you can find local beyond organic produce now you’re really doing good. Not only is this a better option for your health but now you're supporting a smaller local farm and cutting down on greenhouse gasses needed to produce, package and ship your food over long distances.
Get to know your farmer. If you live in an area where this is possible go to tour some local farms. Get to know your farmer. Maybe it’s at a local farmers market or maybe it's out where they work, grow and raise your food. Learning the work it takes to produce our food and knowing the process required to bring livestock to the table has always been an important part of our history. We find ourselves today growing more and more distant from nature and our food. Use the guide above to help you read through the story that the labels want you to see and understand the best food choices for you and the planet.