What is All Natural Anyway?
Let’s face it, we all ate a lot of food on Thursday–the biggest eating holiday of the year in America. I’m still full.
All that consumption got me thinking about food, and what we think we are eating vs what we are really eating. Reality vs the perception that is created through good old advertising and marketing. And green colored packaging, because after all, green means good.
On the heels of the expense of organic products, it seems to me we are seeing a wave of specifically green product labels that tout products as “all natural.” Kind of like Atkins and the South Beach Diet paving the way for the insane popularity “low carb” and “net carb” food labels. I initially began wondering about “all natural” as a marketing angle when I started seeing fast food chains advertising their chicken as being so. In other words, “Our product is superior, and you should be prepared to pay more, because it’s better for you.”
Being that I do not eat beef, my focus in this blog is going to focus on poultry. And since I only partake in wild fish, I won’t even talk about them. I encourage you, if you consume either of these protein sources, to investigate what you are buying and what you are eating and make sure that you are getting what you pay for. Because “artificial growth hormones” are different from estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone, which are natural steroids, which are also administered artificially in beef.
“Natural foods” are often perceived as foods that are minimally processed and do not contain any hormones, antibiotics or artificial flavors. Wrong. In the United States, neither the FDA nor the USDA has rules or regulations for products labeled “natural.” As a result, that “natural” green label can be slapped on foods containing heavily processed ingredients.
Antibiotics have been a staple in the diets of farm animals to promote growth, control illness, and reduce costs. According to a NY Times article, More than half of the chicken Perdue sells can actually be labeled “no antibiotics ever.” They continue, however, to use ionophores, antibiotics not used in human medicine. Chicks at Perdue are also still getting all kinds of medications and even antimicrobials in their feed and water. But that chicken label still says….. “raised without antibiotics.”
Splitting hairs (as my mother was fond of saying)…. or more fittingly, feathers.
Raised Without Hormones
Hmm, wait a minute. I seem to remember reading somewhere recently that it was actually not acceptable in the US to raise ANY poultry with added hormones anyway. It seems we are being sold a mirage–we are buying into it, hook, line, and wallet.
The sticker on my personal favorite protein, chicken, often states “hormone free.” Sad to say, those labels are lying. Why? because no chicken is completely “hormone free.” Chickens naturally produce growth hormones. Progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen are naturally occurring hormones in all animals. Ok, so maybe it’s more of a stretching of the truth….
“No hormones added.” on the product label is also misleading. Additive hormones are banned by the FDA and have been for the past 50 years in poultry. No growth hormones are added to the chicken we eat ANWAY, because they are illegal. When companies market their chicken and holiday turkeys as “no hormones added” consumers need to realize that this label applies to ALL chicken eaten in the United States. It’s nothing special or extra worth paying for. It’s mandated by the FDA.
I may not eat beef, but I do consume eggs and milk based products. Upon examining the yogurt in my fridge I came across labelling that also touted the product as “all natural,” making the claim, “no artificial anything.” However it is unclear from the labeling of said yogurt if the milk used contains growth hormones. Now I don’t know about you, but I think growth hormones do qualify as something un natural and artificial. Maybe that’s just me?
Darn those contaminated cows.
Egg carton labels at the grocery store can leave you feeling dazed and confused. Some labels indicate that the eggs inside are “natural” and others use terms like “free range” or “certified organic.” But again, what I really want to know is whether my purchase is actually what it seems to be, and is it worth paying more for?
The Humane Society’s website states:
Except for “certified organic,” the U.S. government does not set definitions or requirements for egg carton labels. Commercial producers provide laying hens with varying degrees of freedom and space—from less than a sheet of paper to more than 100 times that amount—to engage in natural behaviors.
Though multiple types of farms allow chickens outdoors, the duration or quality of that time varies. Pasture-raised chickens enjoy the most freedom and space, spending the majority of their days outdoors and sleeping inside at night for protection.
As you can see from the chart above, cage free does not mean that the chicken actually goes outside, she may not be in a cage but that depends on your definition of caged, now doesn’t it? I feel like it’s all just a manipulation of wording, don’t you? Is a chicken that spends its life in one big room stepping on top of and over it’s thousands of roommates actually laying eggs that are more healthy (or worth more money) than a chicken restricted to a metal cage?
Good to Go with Non GMO
GMOs are “genetically modified organisms,” or organisms that have been genetically altered through gene splicing. DNA from different species are merged, creating combinations that do not naturally occur in nature. GMOs are engineered with the intention of creating plants that are tolerant to drought, disease and pesticides –resulting in improved productivity. On the down side, more and more evidence is leading to the conclusion that GMO’s are creating health problems, probably because genetically modified plants, such as soybean, corn, cottonseed, and canola have had foreign genes forced into their DNA. And the inserted genes come from species, such as bacteria and viruses, that have never been in the human food supply.
Seems like non GMO is a good thing. According to MotherJones.com, some foods that are in fact GMO but don’t always have a label include squash, zucchini, papayas, and corn on the cob. Thanks to the seed company Monsanto, some of our favorite farm stand fruits and veggies have been engineered to be virus resistant.
Admittedly, I did have to do a little digging to figure out if non GMO was a good thing or a worthwhile thing, and just as I was researching websites, the mom sitting in the row in front of me joked with a mom next to her. “Is that snack non GMO?” “No, it’s all sugar and artificial die.” Again, do we really know what is being marketed to us with regards to our food?
I have always felt that public schools should spend more time teaching nutrition.
The Pumpkin Controversy
Speaking of Thanksgiving, we all just recently found out that canned pumpkin is not pumpkin at all, and I almost feel like my whole pumpkin pie making life has been a lie!. As it turns out, the stuff we use to make all your favorite fall desserts that’s labeled “100% pumpkin” is actually made from 100% not pumpkin. The mix is made from a variety of winter squash (like butternut, Golden Delicious, Hubbard, and more). Libby’s, the brand that produces about 85% of the country’s canned “pumpkin” filling, has actually developed a certain variety of squash that they have been masquerading as pumpkin. The nerve.
As it turns out, pumpkins can be fairly stringy and watery; certain varieties of winter squash make a richer, sweeter puree. I’ve actually made “pumpkin pie” with sweet potatoes, which resulted in a much more flavorful twist on the classic. But, I was honest about it! I told folks it was a sweet potato pie…. Apparently the USDA is fairly lenient with gourd terminology in general, making it perfectly legal to label a food product as “pumpkin” when, in reality, it’s made from a different variety of squash. My kids refused zucchini bead when they were little. “Gross.” Was their reaction. Perception vs. reality.
Honestly, gourd pie sounds very unappealing– but it might go down better with a squash latte.
Something to Ponder
Every time we buy a product, we are contributing to the entire food system – everything from the environment, land, air, water to the farmers themselves. I can’t help but to think that when we pay for “all natural” “hormone free” “cage free” (or “pumpkin”) that we are sometimes being sold a bill of goods. We are being taken advantage of, because everyone wants to feel good about the food they feed their families–we are even willing to pay extra for it when and where we can. I believe that advertising manipulates the wording of our food labels in order to play on that emotion, that desire to do good… and it’s not always what it seems.
Education is always the key, as consumers I guess it falls on us to learn about the products we purchase and feed to our families. Do a little digging and educate yourself (and your kids!) in order to determine if perception is anywhere near reality. It may take a little bit of time and effort, but once you choose a product and a brand that fits your standards, you can just stick with it on future shopping trips. Time well spent.
That’s just My Two Cents
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