Three simple questions that can make food shopping easier–and healthier

Healthy food stampWhen I warn you about Big Food, I’m not just talking about Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, or Nabisco. I’m talking about all the food manufacturers out there that slap misleading labels on their products just to make a buck.

And believe me, the shelves are packed these disingenuous products. Even at places like Whole Foods.

Labeling is getting trickier and trickier. Terms like “natural” don’t always mean what you think they do. And a lot of companies are profiting from the confusion.

I’ve talked about this before. And it’s one reason I always recommend doing as much of your food shopping as possible at your local farmer’s market. But I came across the results of a new survey recently, and the results concerned me. It revealed that one in five Americans think that “local” means “organic.” So I think it’s time to set a few more things straight.

Of course, these days, both local food and organic food are in demand (which is great). And consumers are willing to pay more for them. But these two terms aren’t interchangeable. They mean two totally different things.

“Local” means nothing other than that the food was grown or produced near you. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s organic and/or pesticide-free.

And on the flip side of this coin, “organic” doesn’t always imply that the food is locally sourced. In fact, a lot of organic produce on store shelves comes from California or Mexico.

What’s more, the term “organic” doesn’t always mean that a product was grown without the use of pesticides, either. While certain synthetic pesticides are blacklisted in the organic industry, there are actually a number of other pesticides that are permitted as part of the National Organic Program.

This news may come as an unwelcome shock. But don’t forget the organic farming industry is stillan industry—and a very large and profitable one at that.

So how are you supposed to get the truth about your food? Well, the only way to know for sure is to ask.

Next time you’re at a local farmer’s market or farm stand, here are three questions to ask before you buy. (You can also ask these questions about specific products you find in natural food stores and supermarkets. They may or may not have the information readily available. If there’s any doubt, wait and contact the manufacturer/producer directly.)

  1. Do you use growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or herbicides in the production of the food you sell?

This question speaks for itself. You don’t want any of the above in the food you buy, local or otherwise. And obviously, you can’t trust a generic, catch-all label to give you an accurate picture of what you’re really buying.

  1. Is the beef you sell grass-fed AND grass-finished?

Antibiotic- and hormone-free meat is generally clearly labeled as such. But things get murky when you start talking about grass vs. grain feeding. Unfortunately, many farmers advertise their cows as grass-fed even if they’re “finished” on grain. (In other words, these cows grazed for most of their lives, but were transitioned to grain-feeding before slaughter to fatten them up.)

There’s no question that a cow with any access to pasture will be healthier and happier than one that’s confined to a feed lot. But “grain-finishing” does impact the quality of the beef—and not for the better, either. So if you want a truly healthy product, you want beef from cows that are fed and finished on grass.

  1. Are the eggs/chicken you sell pasture-raised?

This is an especially important question given the popularity of “cage-free” and “vegetarian fed” chickens. Because guess what? Chickens are not vegetarians. They like to peck and forage, and bugs are a big part of their natural diet.

So really, it means nothing if they’re raised outside of cages if their feed is vegetarian. For optimal nutrition, they must be “pastured.” Which means they’re free to roam and forage on the farm.

You can’t go wrong with food that’s responsibly sourced—local, organic fruits and vegetables and pastured meat, eggs, and dairy. And for most people, it is possible to find farms that meet these standards.

You may have to do a little extra legwork, but the benefits will be well worth any extra effort.


“U.S. and Canadian Consumer Perception of Local and Organic Terminology.” International Food and Agribusiness Management Review. Volume 17, Issue 2, 2014