You know what makes me sad? Well, there are several things. But recently, it’s the fact that I can’t just pop into any old restaurant and order something seemingly healthy with the assurance that I am getting quality nutrition. It’s the fact that we Americans have to explicitly label high quality, nutritionally dense and responsibly raised foods as such.  And it’s the fact that not everyone, everywhere, has access to real food, or even knowledge of what real food is compared to the odd “food-like” substances that are marketed throughout the U.S.

I think most of us have a general idea of what food is good for us and what isn’t. Avoid the fried foods and soda and you’ll be fine, right? But it seems to me that seeking out real, quality foods can be a challenge for many people. To clarify, my definition of real, quality food includes several aspects:

  • The food must be responsibly raised. This applies to both animals products and crops, and is important for sustainability, the humane treatment of animals, and of course, nutritional quality of the final product.
  • The food must be free of additives, chemicals, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms). These are typically added to foods at various stages to speed production, enhance taste, and prolong shelf life.
  • The food must be minimally processed. I heard a saying a while ago that went something like, “real food isn’t made of ingredients, real food is ingredients.” This means that, no matter how healthy a t.v. dinner is advertised to be, it’s not going to fall into the real food category.

So how can we find real food? There are so many different options, and food labeling can be confusing and misleading. Here are some biggies:

  • Shop the perimeter. When you go to the store, hit the produce section, meat counter, and possibly dairy section. You may have to venture to the center of the store for designated items like olive or coconut oil and spices. Plan these items in advance and avoid wandering aisle after aisle of boxed or prepackaged items.
  • In general, avoid items that require nutrition labels. I do have a couple exceptions to this rule. Greek yogurt, almond milk, honey, and coconut oil are all example of items in my kitchen right now that have nutrition labels.
  • If a food has a nutrition label and ingredient list, make sure the ingredient list is short (less than 5 is a good rule) and made up of pronounceable items that you could cook with on your own.
  • Ask yourself, will this go bad in the relatively near future?  Real food goes bad. Period. Remember what I said about additives and chemicals? That’s right, real food doesn’t have these things to extend its shelf life.

After getting these biggies down, we can get into some more nitty-gritty details. There are labels/terms that can be placed on food, depending on the methods used to raise or grow it, that are important to understand.

  • USDA Organic: According the USDA website, “overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” Crops are made without synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, and prohibited pesticides. Animals are raised in accordance with health and welfare standards, and without the use of growth hormones and antibiotics, and fed organic feed. Find more information here: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPOrganicStandards
  • Certified Humane: The standards vary from animal to animal, but include specific requirements for environment, food and water, handling of the animal, health practices, transportation, and slaughter. The standards are put in place to ensure humane treatment of our animal food sources. For more information check out this website: http://certifiedhumane.org/how-we-work/our-standards/
  • Cage-free: Hens are not kept in battery cages. These hens are able to exhibit natural behaviors like spreading their wings and laying their eggs in nests, and walking. Cage-free hen farms are often audited by 3rd party systems who set the standards, but are still far from humane. According to www.humanesociety.org, both caged and cage-free hens have part of their beaks burned off, are slaughtered long before their natural lifespan, and are purchased “from hatcheries that kill the male chicks upon hatching—more than 200 million each year in the United States alone.” Furthermore, there are no standards set in place for animal nutrition and the use of antibiotics.
  • Farm fresh: This term is generally used for marketing to make foods sound healthy, and follows no official standards. 
  • Natural: Another loosely used term with no set standards.
  • Free range: USDA regulate that animals must have access to the outdoors, but does not designate a specific amount of time for outdoor access or minimum space requirement.
  • Grass fed: This term is not strictly regulated. According to the USDA, grass-fed animals must have a 100% grass-fed or forage based diet, but there are no regulations on the grass being live. This means that forage stockpiles and certain supplementation are allowed, and there are also no bans on the use of hormones and antibiotics. Animals must have “continuous access to pasture during growing season,” but growing season varies from climate to climate which means not all animals are on pasture year round. Furthermore, USDA has a voluntary verification process for the grass-fed claim, which means that this label can be used without following USDA standards. To combat this confusion, the AGA (American Grassfed Association) announced it’s own standards for the grass-fed label, “which prohibits confinement, antibiotics, and added hormones.”
  • Pasture-raised: This is another term with loose USDA standards. Currently, pasture-raised animals have “continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle,” though there are no limitations on the use of hormones or antibiotics. For more information on grass-fed and pasture-raised, see my source at http://www.isba.org/sections/animallaw/newsletter/2010/01/distinguishingmarketingclaimsforgrassfedorganicandpa

As you can see, there are a lot of claims that manufacturers like to make about their products. Some are better than others, some are highly confusing, and some are completely meaningless. I believe that the best way to go about finding real food is to get it directly from a farmer. Varying by region and season, farmer’s markets are a great option. Shopping at a farmer’s market, or getting food directly from a farm, allows us consumers to ask the farmers about their practices, and be more assured in the high quality of the food. To find farms or farmer’s markets near you, check out www.localharvest.org.

For most of us, eating an organic diet, avoiding all processed/packaged foods, and incorporating the highest quality animal products 100% of the time is difficult to impossible. Remember, it’s important to never let perfect be the enemy of good. Do the best you can. Seek real, wholesome, quality foods whenever possible. Our bodies, our planet, and our animal food sources will thank us!

Eat real food! Tonight's dinner was fajitas with a giant mixed green and kale salad.

Eat real food! Tonight’s dinner was fajitas  topped with organic cheddar with a giant mixed green and kale salad.

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