Organic, Local, Natural, Grass Fed, Cage-Free, Free Range…Oh My!


The other day, a co-worker forwarded this article to me in which they discuss how much consumer confusion still surrounds the terms “local” and “organic” when it comes to food. The study they refer to in the article found that nearly 1 in 4 people think “local” actually means “organic”, and if a product is “organic”, it means that it was produced “locally”. We are constantly bombarded by news headlines, advertising, and packaging that contain these buzz words, and don’t know what to think. The words are so often used because they strike a chord with people who are trying to “get healthy” or “eat better”. Many are purchasing what looks healthy based on what they’ve heard on the news, or simply because they’re selling it at a health food store. Buyer beware: Just because something is organic or local or natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you. At HSL, we get questions about labels not limited to these, all the time… what do the terms on the labels mean and which should you be looking for? Here is a little breakdown of what these terms really mean.

What makes something “organic”? If something is organic, it means that it consists of ingredients that have passed certain rigorous regulations set by the USDA. The product must be free of all synthetic pesticides, and made from foods (or the food itself is) grown in soil that has been free of synthetic pesticides for at least three years. Animals must have access to pasture, and cannot be routinely treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Certain organic fruits and vegetables like apples, berries, celery, spinach and others that are shown to have higher amounts of pesticide residue on them may be worth spending the extra money on. (For a full list of the top contaminated fruits and veggies see the EWG’s ranking here.) That said, even eating these veggies and fruits after a good washing is better than eating a processed carbohydrate (think fresh fruit vs. fruit snacks)! Items like butter, sour cream, and other animal derived fats are probably ones you’d want to buy organic or from farm animals that do not get hormones or antibiotics and are grass fed, since the fat is where many chemicals are stored in the animal. (For more details on the best type of dairy, read the second paragraph of this post.) Many farmers use organic practices, but are unable to afford the expensive process of becoming certified organic. When in doubt, ask the farmer or better yet, visit the farm!

The term organic can be reassuring, but it can also be misleading. I remember when a Trader Joe’s opened and my co-workers lost their minds because of the copious amounts of organic snacks they carried. These were the same people who were always on “diets” and trying to “eat healthy”. They’d run down to TJ’s on their break and come back with boxes of things like organic Pop-Tart knock offs and other processed organic foods. Organic cookies and crackers? Still junk. Organic gummy bears and fruit rollups? Yep, still junk. Organic definitely doesn’t always mean healthy, and it definitely doesn’t always mean that it’s real food. In fact, when it comes to fresh carbs, you’re better off buying the ones that don’t have any packaging at all.

What does “local” mean? The term “local” doesn’t have a textbook definition, so it can mean different things to different people. To some, it might mean the product came from this country, or from your specific state, county, or town, or from the farmer down the road, etc.. If you live in Alabama and desire to purchase “local” produce and you pick up some apples that came from New York as opposed to New Zealand, you may feel as though you’ve accomplished your mission by purchasing local. For those living in areas where apples are plentiful, if someone they knew offered them an apple grown in a town 40 miles away as opposed to one from the orchard around the corner, they might scoff at their friend for not buying “local”. It is important to ask yourself, why do you want to buy local? If you’re buying it because you think it was grown organically, think again. Many (I’d venture to say MOST!) farmers use chemical sprays on their fruits and veggies. If they don’t spray they will probably label their produce as “chemical-free” or “no-spray”, as more and more people are seeking out items grown this way.

If you’re buying local because you’re concerned about the environmental impact the transportation of the food may have, you may need to venture outside of the standard big-box grocery store. Big grocery stores carrying items from all over the world have only been around since the 1940’s, before that, people were either growing their own food or buying it directly from the people who actually grew it! Obviously not everyone has the time, space, and resources to start a garden or preserve and can foods the neighbors grew while they’re in season, Laura Ingalls Wilder style, but doing what you can, when you can, can make a difference.

What makes something “natural”? Nothing. Like “local”, there is no real solid definition for what that word actually means. The FDA basically says that a label can say “natural” so long as it doesn’t have added colors, flavors, or synthetic ingredients. They also say the product must be “minimally processed”, but what is their definition of minimal? A product can still be processed junk, and be considered “natural”, leading those who purchase it to feel good about their decision, while continuing to put fake foods into their bodies. The loose language that defines “natural” allows food manufacturers to run wild with their packaging tactics, and they’re definitely taking advantage of the situation, and their customers. Don’t be deceived; stick to non-packaged foods and keep it simple 🙂

What is “grass fed?” Unlike “natural” or “local”, in order for a label to read “grass fed”, more definitive qualifications must be met. Grass and forage (which includes much more than what is mowed regularly at a golf course—not lawn clippings but clover, oats, alfalfa, pea, bean, and much more…this had never occurred to me before moving to a farm) must be the source of food the animal consumes throughout its lifetime. Also, the animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products. Now, unfortunately, as with everything else we’ve discussed thus far, there are assumptions that come along with buying meat that is “grass fed”. When people see that label on their ground beef, steaks, or stew meat, their mind likely wanders to a luscious green pasture where cattle are roaming and romping, tails almost wagging as they lift up their heads, mouths chomping on greens, and they stare at you with their big brown eyes, wondering “what is this person doing? This isn’t a zoo, move along now”. The problem is the grass-fed definition has nothing to do with the welfare of the animals. They are still allowed to be confined or on feedlots, so long as they have access to hay. Just another reason to take a ride out to the farm and see for yourself, or at the very least, ask questions! If the person at the meat counter doesn’t know how they were raised, they can certainly find out for you. When animals are on pasture for at least the majority of their lives, their meat is much more nutrient dense (higher in Omega-3’s which reduce inflammation). And, if we’re talking about dairy cows, the butter that is made from their milk is higher in Vitamin K (which helps us absorb calcium), and in CLA (which can help protect against cancer and obesity).

How about “cage-free”? Just as local doesn’t mean organic, and grass fed doesn’t mean cows are roaming green pastures all day, “cage free” does not guarantee that poultry (mainly we’re talking chickens here) have access to the outdoors. Unlike conventionally raised chickens that often live three or four (or more) to a cage, with cages stacked as high and as far as will fit in a building, cage free chickens are not held in cages, but allowed to roam within a barn or warehouse. Sure, these chickens can spread their wings and scratch in dirt, but from a nutritional standpoint, chickens raised conventionally and ones that are raised “cage free” are about the same. Which leads us to the better egg option…

“Free…range”? Free range animals must have access to the outdoors, although they don’t actually have to go outside. There aren’t any restrictions as to what they’re fed, unless of course they’re “free range organic”, in which case they have access to the outdoors and only organic feed. Unfortunately, animals that are labeled free range can be raised in the same kind of over-crowded production barns or warehouses as the cage-free animals, and organic animals can be raised this way also. I feel like a total Debbie Downer, but without a doubt, the best poultry/eggs you’re going to find are either at the farmer’s market, or at a natural foods store where you’re likely to see a little label telling you the name of the farm the product came from, with maybe even a photo of the farmer and their family. When good practices are used, those raising the animals have nothing to hide and will be HAPPY to talk to you about how their animals live!

When it comes to meat and eggs, aside from having your own herd or flock, the best you can do is either get to know the farm the products are coming from (either by visiting, which can be a ton of fun, but unrealistic for a lot of people, or by calling and asking them questions), or at least get to know your grocer/butcher/meat department person. Again, I refer to Amy’s PFC on the CHEAP Part 2 post where she says, “Do your best and don’t stress about the rest. As a society, we all strive to be perfect. With your nutrition you might find that you feel better if you cut yourself a break. No, this is not permission for a weekly pizza and beer night, but it IS permission to not worry about where the chicken came from when you’re at a friends house and they have lovingly prepared a meal for you.” Two conventional eggs and conventional spinach cooked in butter are still leagues better for you than two of those “organic” Pop-Tart things. Remember that.

My advice? Pick your battles. One thing that I will not give up, as much as I try to support local farms who use organic practices (and local to me means as close as possible to where I live), are avocados. They are such a delicious, healthy fat. So nourishing. So good for you. So worth it to me to compromise on this item. I feel as though I pick up enough of my fruits, veggies, meats and dairy from either the farmer’s market where I can talk to the farmer about how they produce their items, or from the actual farm where I can see fields of food and how their animals are being raised, that I can justify splurging on that avocado. It’s amazing that even though this area is surrounded by farms (and farmers), yet the majority of people do 100% of their grocery shopping at Walmart or the other regional chain stores that don’t offer ANY foods that are grown nearby. But, that’s another blog post entirely.

In the end, you need to do what’s best for you and your family. The more we know about the foods we eat and what our options are, the better. As always, keeping things simple is our motto.

Here is a clip of Cassie on Twin Cities Live discussing this VERY topic!

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