#AceFoodNews – Feb.16: As a purist and advocate of fresh and well prepared food of the best – not the most expensive quality. So GMO, Organic, Local, Conventional, Natural? What does it all ACTUALLY mean? 

Make sure you’re eating the healthiest, best food you possibly can with this handy guide to understanding food labelling and taking full control of your food. Deciding what to eat on a daily basis is a choice that not only affects personal health, but that has incredible environmental and political ramifications as well.
The decisions we make in the supermarket, the farmer’s market, or anywhere else we purchase food is essentially a vote cast for the methods involved in producing that food—as well as the possible environmental and political consequences associated with them.

1. Know what the terms “Organic,” “Conventional,” “GMO” and “Natural” mean.

• Organic—Produced using regulated and certified farming methods in which no synthetic chemicals are used. 100% Organic foods have not been irradiated or genetically modified at all. Organic food production encourages crop rotation, biological diversity and healthy soil.

• Conventional—Often produced using synthetic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, in order to increase growth rates and maximize profits. Often relies on a monocrop, in which a single crop is grown on the same land every year. These practices can lead to unhealthy, damaged soil, lacking in essential nutrients.

• GMO—GMOs are genetically modified organisms. In these products, genes may be taken from one species and inserted into another that would not normally crossbreed in nature—for example, the genes of a tomato spliced with those of rice. Non-GMO products have not been genetically modified in this manner. GMO foods are not organic, according to USDA standards, but non-GMO foods can be either organic or conventional. 100% organic foods are prohibited from being produced using GMOs and must not even come into contact with them. These can be important distinctions when it comes to navigating advertising and marketing strategies.

• Natural—Natural is not the same as organic. In the United States, organic food is regulated and certified according to strict standards; however, there is no legal definition of “natural”, and the term is essentially unregulated, except when it comes to meat and egg products. Manufacturers can basically use the term any way they please for other items. Although the FDA does not “object” to the use of the term natural on packaging if the product is free of artificial flavors, colors, or synthetic substances, foods claiming to be natural may still be produced using pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and hormones. They often contain large amounts of GMOs as well, as a recent report has shown.

2. Learn to see through flashy advertising and marketing

There’s a lot of confusion regarding these ubiquitous words, in large part because they can have similar defining traits and can occupy similar places in supermarkets. Their differences are important though, because retailers will often attempt to capitalize on consumer ignorance.

For example—let’s say you go into a supermarket and attempt to purchase organic apple cider, but this particular retailer is sold out of organic cider on that day. They may attempt to direct you to a display of cider made with “naturally grown” non-GMO apples instead, which is more expensive than their conventional, standard cider. Perhaps the retailer hopes that in your mind, non-GMO, natural, and organic all mean the same thing. Perhaps they don’t even know the difference themselves.

This natural, non-GMO cider has been packaged in beautiful earth tones, perhaps with a picture of a pristine orchard or a field right in the center. It looks like what you imagine “natural” to be: straight from the earth, idyllic, and pure. It’s won awards. The cider display is in a section of the store with a lot of wood floors and green signs. It feels good to be there.

This non-GMO apple cider could technically be organic or use organic ingredients, but unless it states that clearly, chances are that it’s conventional. It won’t contain any genetically modified ingredients, but since the USDA doesn’t even regulate the word natural on packaging aside from meat and poultry, you may still be ingesting pesticides and herbicides that were used in growing those conventional apples. The flashiness of the packaging, and the “non-GMO” label, may seduce you into thinking that this “natural” cider is somehow the same as organic cider, but this is not necessarily the case.

3. Learn to decode the PLU numbers on your produce

“PLU” stands for Price Look-Up. They are the four or five digit numbers you find on those little stickers placed on your avocados or apples. Generally, you can deduce the following from the numbers you see:

• Four numbers (4356, for example) means that the item is conventionally grown, and is not organic.

• Five numbers, with a 9 in front (i.e. 94356) means that the item is organic.

• Five numbers, with an 8 in front (i.e. 84356) means that the item has been genetically modified; however, the law does not require manufacturers to identify GMO foods.

4. Know the pros and cons of buying local

Not only does buying local support your immediate community and economy, but it can be beneficial for both you and the environment. By buying local, you’re getting food that hasn’t traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to get to you. When your food has been shipped over these sorts of distances, quality and nutritional value will often suffer.

In addition, local foods require less fossil fuels to transport the product to the consumer, which positively impacts the environment at large.

Buying local, of course, does not guarantee that you’re getting organic, non-GMO products; and your choice of products will be limited to what can be grown in your area. Just because a product is local does not guarantee higher quality, and just because it’s shipped to you from a shorter distance does not mean that negative environmental effects are nonexistent. However, if you’re able to talk directly to your local farmer at the farmer’s market, at least you’ll be able to be informed about your food and how it was grown direct from the source.