Understanding Current Food Lingo




As we have become more interested in the quality of our food and where it comes from, producers have begun to use different terms on packages. It is important to know exactly what these terms do and do not mean, so you can decide whether a particular product is right for your family and budget. Here are some brief definitions to help:

The National Organic Program of the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) regulates all farming, wild crop harvesting, and handling operations that seek to sell products as organically produced. crops are grown without common fertilizers, including petroleum- and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals are given only organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and are not given growth hormones or antibiotics. USDA also regulates the importing and labeling of organic products from other countries. Unless certified by USDA, foods and beverages may not be marketed as organic.

Despite the widespread use of the term on food packages, no government agency has a precise definition for ‘natural’ (as of 12/08). In general, to be called natural, a product must be free of artificial or synthetic ingredients or additives, including color, flavor, or any ingredient “not normally expected.” This means that lemonade flavored with beet juice or cheese colored with paprika cannot be called natural. The Food and Drug Administration continues to evaluate natural claims on a “case-by-case basis,” while USDA is finalizing rules for the use of ‘natural’ on meat, poultry, and egg products.

Although ‘locally grown’ food is currently very popular, the term does not have a legal definition. One national chain defines local as anything grown in the same state as it is sold; another says that it is anything grown 7 hours or less from the store. The definition most commonly accepted by consumers is that local food is grown within 100 miles of where it is purchased. Since there is no definition for local, you may want to ask exactly where a food was grown and/or processed. To get the freshest, safest, most local food, visit growers and develop personal connections with farmers and ranchers.

Environmental concerns about the large amount of fuel and resources used to transport food around the world have led to the concept of a food mile. Basically, a food mile is the distance that food travels from where it is grown to where it is ultimately purchased or eaten. The more food miles associated with a food, the less sustainable and environmentally desirable that food is. For example, produce that is flown or shipped from South America to the US involves thousands of food miles, whereas produce purchased at a local farmer’s market may involve fewer than 50 or 100 food miles.

The term ‘sustainable agriculture’ refers to a system of plant and animal production that will satisfy human food and fiber needs over the long-term. It is a system that enhances environmental quality and makes the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources at the same time. This type of agriculture also sustains the economic viability of farm operations and local communities, thereby enhancing the quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and society as a whole. Groups across the country are working to increase the demand for more sustainable agriculture and food systems in local communities

The programs of the MSU Extension Service are available to all people regardless of race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, and marital or family status. Issued in furtherance of cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Douglas Steele, Vice Provost and Director, Extension Service, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717.

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