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A Conscious Guide to Understanding How To Shop For Food

Food shopping can be confusing and exhuasting with the various terms from seasonal, local organic, grass-fed. Here's a brief explanation to help you choose what you want.

You are what what you eat eats.
- Michael Pollan

This post is meant to be a follow up to my last one because I got a good amount of direct feedback about it being helpful to people. Here's a chance to go a little deeper into some of the things that people find confusing. I hope you find it helpful when you shop so that you can get the best ingredients possible and make informed decisions about what you eat and feed your family.

Have you been to the market and seen these labels: Seasonal, Local, Organic, Natural, Grass-fed, Biodynamic, Conventional, Antibiotic and Hormone Free, Whole, Free Range, Pastured, Wild, Farm Raised, Raw, Pasteurized, Ultra-Pasteurized? And there are more. How do you know what to buy? Wouldn’t it be great if food was raised the old fashioned way and chicken was just chicken or produce was just produce and you didn’t have to figure out the difference? Do you just finally choose something, not knowing if you made a good choice? Food shopping shouldn’t have to take so long or be so emotionally exhausting.

It doesn’t have to be confusing, but there is a lot to digest. You are entitled to understand the difference so I want to try and simplify it for you. Since there are so many different labels and so many things to consider, I’m going to organize it by looking at what you may be buying and the labels that could possibly apply to these items. To get started, let’s just look at produce, dairy products, beef and chicken. We can focus on fish, eggs and other things at a later date.

  1. Produce: If the amount of pesticides used in growing your food is important to you, look for organically grown food in the store. If you are shopping at a Farmer’s Market or CSA, you can ask the farmer about their growing practices. Some small farms adhere to organic growing practices but have not gotten certified because of the cost involved. If you can speak with the person who grew the food you can make an informed decision. Conventionally grown produce does not adhere to these standards even if you buy it in a store that sells organic food or directly from the farmer. Seasonal and local labels also apply here. Seasonal is what is being harvested now and local means that it was produced in this area. So when you think about seasonal food, think about whether it grows in you climate during this time of year. It should be the freshest tasting and in most cases less expensive but it isn’t necessarily organic. When faced with the choice between local conventional produce or organic, that is a personal decision. Some people will always go with the local, others with the organic. I typically base my decision upon what it is that I am buying. Berries for example absorb a lot of pesticides so I go for the organic, asparagus on the other hand don’t absorb as much so I choose local if I can get them. To get a list of what soaks up the most and least amounts of pesticides go to www.Foodnews.org.
  2. Dairy Products: The labels that you will see here are typically Organic and Hormone Free. Sometimes you will also see Grass-fed and Biodynamic. If your milk isn’t labeled any of these things then it is likely conventional and you have no guarantee of how the cows were raised or what they were fed. Remember, what goes into the animal, goes into their milk and that goes into you and your kids. In most parts of the country, unless you have a relationship with a farm, all milk that you can buy will be pasteurized and sometimes to lengthen the shelf life it will be ultra-pasteurized. Ultra pasteurized milk does not provide additional health benefits and it has been even more processed and therefore even further from the way nature created it. When I have the choice, I go for the dairy that comes from a grass-fed animal because grass is the natural diet of the animal. If I can’t get that, I go for the organic. Organic means that the animals were fed organic food and were not given hormones to increase their milk production. If a product is labeled biodynamic, it comes from a farm that is not only organic but also employs a certain method of farming that was created by Rudolf Steiner and requires compliance with additional standards to protect the land.When buying cheese, I often look for raw milk products. They are readily available and flavorful. Raw milk cheese contains enzymes that are not present in pasteurized cheese. In fact, some people who have trouble digesting dairy products are able to eat raw cheese because the enzyme needed to aid in digestion is present in the raw cheese and not in the pasteurized products. Many European cheeses are made from grass- fed and raw milk and several American producers are making some delicious cheese this way as well. If you have access to a good cheese shop or counter in a market, speak with the person there and sample some things.
  3. Chicken: What you will commonly see here is antibiotic free and/or organic. Unless you are shopping in a store whose minimum standards are at least hormone and antibiotic free for meats, if the packaging does not say either of these things then it is likely neither of these things. If you can speak with a knowledgeable Butcher or the Farmer, you may be able to get additional information. When buying chickens, organic means that it has been fed a diet of organic food and also has not been given hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. It’s especially great if you can get a chicken that has been raised on pasture. I like to buy organic whenever possible but at a minimum, I buy chickens that are antibiotic free. I also like to know that the animal has been humanely raised and hasn’t spent its entire life indoors, in overcrowded conditions never seeing sunshine nor roaming freely. If you have not seen the movie Food Inc., I highly recommend it. You will learn so much on this subject that will help you to make educated decisions about your food.
  4. Beef (you can use this as a guideline for other meat): Here, I am not addressing breeds or brands but rather the way in which the animals were fed and raised. The labels that apply here are hormone and antibiotic free, organic and grass-fed. As with the chicken, if it is not labeled any of these things you do not know how the animal was raised or how it was fed unless the Butcher or Farmer can give you information on that. Much of the cattle today are fed a diet of grain, it’s readily available and most commonly used. Often the grain can be genetically modified and you wouldn’t know that. When buying beef I choose grass-fed whenever possible. Since grass is the natural diet of the animal, an animal fed on grass is going to be the healthiest and supply you with the highest quality meat. In fact, I have read that the composition of grass-fed meat is entirely different from beef that comes from animals raised on grain. It is rich in Omega 3s, the same fat that makes salmon so good for us and high conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which helps to build lean muscle and has been said to fight cancer. I have also read that it is lower in fat than grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is available in some stores, at some Farmers’ Markets and through many online sources. Additionally, beef from a grass-fed cow is said to be less likely to contain e coli because the animal has healthy digestion and also because of the way the meat is processed. Again, I would refer you to the movie Food Inc. for more on this subject.

I hope that this helps to make your food shopping less complicated and guides you to making choices that work best for you and your family. If you want more information or have questions about how to choose healthy food, feel free to contact me.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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