Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Natural foods lingo lesson 1

With a wide variety of "green" food products available on shelves or at markets it is easy to get lost in the meaning of these marketing terms. We have had many visitors of the ranch ask us for clarification on what exactly these terms mean. Personally, I am not a fan of marketing buzzwords, many of them have no legal definition so it can be confusing when producer and consumer are not speaking the same language. Here is a list of general explanations for each term. This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list but merely a tool for the consumer to be able to better navigate the market.

There are terms that refer to the product itself as well as terms that refer to the production methods. Let's focus on terms surrounding chicken and eggs for today.

Brown Eggs/ White Eggs - No nutritional difference at all between the two, just come from different breeds. Commercially, white eggs are laid by white leghorn hens while brown eggs mostly come from red or black sex link hybrids. Other breeds lay white and brown (and green) eggs but not at the powerhouse rate of these breeds or hybrids. I'm not sure where the "brown eggs are better for you" mentality started but it in the early days of commercial scale egg production, white leghorns were used primarily because they are a smaller bird that eats less feed. Back in those days, brown eggs likely came from small flocks (which probably tasted better) and commanded a higher price at the store. When producers figured they could charge more for the brown eggs (which would help cover the added costs of feed), brown eggs became more widely available commercially.

Antibiotic Free - Means that the animals were not fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics to prevent disease and encourage the animals to grow in spite of stress. This practice is different from treating a sick animal with a round of antibiotics to cure an infection but both are a big no-no in organic production methods. Our cattle eat grass and we mix our own ration for the hogs and chickens but we feed chick starter to the chicks when they are in the brooder before they develop feathers and can go outside. Sourcing non-medicated feed is quite difficult in our small town but we found a place in Redmond that sells non-medicated starter milled locally at Hillsboro Feed near Portland.

Hormone Free - I hate this claim. It is misleading by exclusion. If farm A advertises "free range, naturally nested eggs with no hormones administered" and farm B advertises "free range, naturally nested eggs", which one are you going to choose? Of course you will choose farm A because the claim they make that their eggs are hormone free gives the implication that the eggs from other farms are not. The reality is that, in the US it is illegal to use any form of growth stimulating hormones ever in poultry (chicken, turkey and other fowl) or pork production and has been since 1959. Yet, a portion of the public still worries that all non-organic meats are chock full of hormones and antibiotics. The perpetuation of this claim just exaggerates this fear. I will admit that I have used this term in reference to our products before but now realize that if I say our pastured meats are not administered hormones, I know that I am just talking about the beef (where the practice is legal but but mostly found on dairies and feedlots not small farms) but the customer may not. Here's to breaking the cycle! I will no longer make any references to our products being hormone-free, if customers question the lack of such a claim, they can just talk to me about our practices.

High Omega 3 - This one has become quite popular in recent years. Eggs high in omega 3 fatty acids come from chickens that have a diet high in those same acids. Pastured or free range chickens have naturally high levels of omega 3 because the eat a lot of plant material but most "Omega" eggs at the store were fed either flax seeds or fish meal from menhaden.

Vegetarian Fed - Chickens are fed a plant based ration. Most of the time the bulk of the ration consists of corn (for carbohydrate energy) and soy (for protein). No meat byproducts are used (though I have heard the argument before that fish are sometimes not classified as meat but I can't back that claim up). Chickens are naturally omnivorous and as silly as it sounds to eat a vegetarian diet, I'm not sure where the "meat byproducts' or "protein derived from animal sources" fit into a natural diet either.

Fertile - The eggs in the carton are not necessarily fertile (though in recent years some folks have had success hatching eggs from Trader Joe's) but the hens have had contact with roosters, so were most likely not kept in cages.

Fresh - With meats, the term fresh means that the meat was never frozen. With eggs, the USDA grading system relates the interior quality of the egg with freshness. USDA grade AA eggs are the "freshest" in quality and will have a thick yolk and firm white. As eggs age, their quality degrades so if you buy AA eggs but don't eat them for three weeks you will have A or B grade eggs. They still taste the same but the whites thin and the yolk flattens. Eggs can be stored for a long while, especially farm eggs (which keep up to two months in the refrigerator). Another interesting thing of note when it comes to buying eggs is that the cartons are labeled with the date the eggs were packed, not the date they were laid. Eggs are usually packed within a week of being laid. When you are at the market, take a look at the code on the side of the carton to get the freshest eggs. Cartons must be labeled with the number of the day of the year that the eggs were packed (001 to 365). On the carton below, the eggs were packed on January 19th (day 019) and have a sell by date of February 28th. To get the freshest eggs, pick the highest three digit number (unless of course it is the first of the year).


Cage Free - Hens are not confined to small cages where they are unable to stand up or spread their wings. Most often the birds stocked at high densities in free roaming or free ranging barns.

Naturally Nested - Not a defined term but mostly refers to hens that live in high density barns with long rows of nest boxes. Another way of saying cage free.

Free Roaming - Slightly different, but sometimes used interchangeably with free-range, this term refers to management practices. Hens are not kept in battery cages but live with thousands of other birds on the floors of large poultry barns.

Free Range - This term is only defined by the USDA for poultry (for beef or pork, it is an unregulated term) and means that the birds roam about freely in high density poultry barns but must be allowed access to the outdoors. There is no stipulation for how large the outdoor yard must be, the quality of the range or amount of time the doors are open, just that the birds are allowed access. In the small farmers circle, the definition of free range generally refers to birds that are allowed to roam outside without restrictions or barriers. Some farmers fence off large sections of pasture with electrified poultry netting and move the flock every few days, some just open the door and let the birds scatter to the four winds. Again, the industry standard's definition is very different from the small farmer so free range does not necessarily mean that the birds ever went outside or it could mean that they lived their whole lives outside, all depends on the grower.

Pastured - (not to be confused with pasteurized for the salmonella wary consumer) This is not a regulated term. In general, it refers to a style of raising chickens popularized by Joel Salatin where the birds live in bottomless pasture pens that are moved daily to new pasture. The chickens get a fresh patch of forage and ground to search for bugs while being moved off of their manure which fertilizes the field. They aren't allowed to roam freely about the farm but get the benefits of a diet supplemented with pasture. Unless you shop at the farmer's market, pastured poultry is not widely available on a commercial scale and comes almost exclusively from small farms.

Natural - This term is unregulated. It does not refer to any standard agreed upon practices. However, as a small farmer, this is one of the terms that I feel best reflects my product. When I say that our poultry and eggs (and beef and pork) are natural, I mean that they get to live their lives as close to the way that nature intended. They live outside, they don't receive hormones (the cattle that is, remember no hormones are used in pork or poultry production in the US) or antibiotics, they eat what they would eat as part of their natural diet, and go about their days expressing themselves by doing things that a chicken (or other animal) would do: they dig for worms, they take dust baths, they play, they nap, they bicker, they cause mischief. But, since this term is unregulated you have no guarantee what the producer classifies as natural as part of the management practices.

Certified Humane - This term is actually regulated. It means that the eggs come from hens that were fed a diet free of antibiotics (no hormones though because that is illegal anyways right?) and that they have enough space to engage in chicken-like behaviors. The term isn't perfect and the hens may not necessarily be allowed outside or may have their beaks trimmed, but it attempts to encourage some sort of animal welfare.

Organic - This is the big "green" term that sets standards for feed (non-GMO, organic ingredients only that are produced with no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides that contains no antibiotics (or for cattle, hormones)) as well as husbandry guidelines. Producers can not legally use the term 'organic' if they are not certified by a certification agency hence the use of terms like "natural" for small farmers. "Certified Naturally Grown" is a grass roots labeling certification that caters to small farms that sell locally or direct to consumers and tries to remove some of the hassle of the mountains of paperwork required by organic certification agencies. Of course there are many, many small farms that follow organic management practices but choose to forgo the certification process, so just because the farm down the road is not certified, does not mean that they could not sell you a product just as good (if not better because it is local) as one labeled organic in the store.


Adam said...

Thank you! That was very informative!

Ian said...

It seems like "Organic" is good thing to look for when shopping at the grocery store. The other labels seem very confusing and squishy!
I'm not going to be duped if I just stick with organic, right?

Katia said...

Indeed. Though organic isn't perfect and costs a little more, it does guarantee an organic diet, enough space to live and that the birds were processed at a certified organic facility. Organic isn't an exclusive term either. The addition of terms like omega 3, natural, free range, pastured or certified humane are just cream on top of the organic label.

Adam said...

I'd be far more likely to support a more strictly certified humane-type labeling than organic. None of the artifical stuff scares me - Im all for genetic and unholy food manipulation. I want a 100 pound tomato :(

Jarom said...

A 100 pound tomato that tastes like water? Interestingly enough, there is an inverse proportion with size and flavor when it comes to tomatoes. Wild ones (that are the size of peas) taste like sugar dipped in tomato sauce. They are too sweet for most people of the world (but a little bitter to Americans =]).

Adam said...

No, a 100 pound tomato that tastes like science!

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