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Food Choices: What's in a Name? - June 13, 2012
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Supermarkets can be overwhelming: bright lights, flashy displays, (seemingly) endless choices. The last thing we need on top of it is confusion from our food labels.

Unfortunately it’s often the case: packaging is covered with words like ‘all-natural,’ ‘organically certified,’ and ‘non-GMO.’ Each seems to denote a healthful, minimally processed product. But do they deliver? We’re here to give you an idea of what you’re buying beyond the label.


USDA Organic

Organic food in the US has been certified by a third party as meeting a specific set of criteria. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, hormones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and various other substances can’t be used in the growth or handling of organic food. Organics are regulated by the USDA, which provides strict rules for the use of the term.


For meat and poultry, ‘natural’ denotes a minimally processed product with no artificial or color additives. For other food products, though, there is no regulated definition. This ambiguity—and lack of third-party certification—has caused problems: several lawsuits assert that manufacturers have used ‘natural’ labels deceptively.


There is no legal requirement in the US to label foods with genetically engineered ingredients. Some manufacturers have voluntarily identified their food as non-GMO, but no regulatory structure exists to police these claims.

rBST/rBGH Free

Hormones are used in US milk production to increase lactation in cows (the practice is banned in Canada, the EU, and Japan). rBST- and rBGH free products are derived from cows not treated with these hormones. Like GMO labeling, these claims are not validated by a third party.

Note that the above terms denote what goes in a product; they say nothing about the product’s environmental footprint. While there’s a lively debate about the climate impacts of organic versus conventional production, it’s safe to say that a ‘natural’ product isn’t guaranteed to be environmentally friendly, or that a hormone-free cow produces any less methane than an rBST treated one. So while there are very compelling health and social reasons to pay attention to what’s on the label, there are other food choices toward a lighter climate impact.

For more information, visit the City of Portland’s FAQ about food labels.

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