A Foodie Lexicon
It's time for us to pull the curtain back on some popular food-industry phrases. They don't mean what you think they mean and it's time you knew that. —Ari LeVaux
organic adj (circa 1940) Refers to an agricultural product lacking chemicals. The movement arose in response to problems created by industrial agriculture after World War II, when farms switched to a diet of chemicals like nitrates originally designed for combat. The movement went mainstream around 1994, when the USDA institutionalized the term.
B.S. METER: Low. Buying organic means you’re buying chemical-free food. But this often means monoculture crops grown far away. The certification process requires a detailed paper trail documenting materials and practices for each crop, which is easy for large operations to achieve but often prohibitive for small, diverse family farms. see also LOCAL
shade-grown adj (circa 1996) A type of coffee cultivated in a diverse forest ecosystem rather than a monoculture plantation setting.
B.S. METER: Moderate. Many coffee vendors make the shade-grown claim for their products, sometimes tenuously. To ensure your coffee was made in the shade, stick to respected labels like Rainforest Alliance Certified or Certified Bird-Friendly.
rBST-free adj (circa 1994) Indicates milk without recombinant bovine somatotropin—a Monsanto-patented, genetically engineered version of a naturally occurring cow hormone that increases milk output.
B.S. METER: Low. This is the good stuff. rBST has proven negative health consequences on dairy cows and is banned in Canada. Organizations like Food and Water Watch suspect human-health implications related to milk from rBST-treated cows. In 2003, Monsanto began suing dairies that were labeling their milk rBST-free but lost repeatedly; in a landmark 2010 case, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that milk from rBST-treated cows is substantially different from milk produced without the hormone. see also HORMONE-FREE
grass-fed adj (circa 1990) Indicates that a cow has consumed the majority of its nutrients in the form of grass, hay, or forage rather than grain. The label is regularly applied to animals sent to a feedlot and fattened on grain for the final 90 to 120 days of their lives.
B.S. METER: High. The USDA is promising to add some bite to the label soon. Until then look for “grain-free” or “grass-finished” beef—the latter indicates animals fed on grass until slaughter. syn GRAIN-FED see also HORMONE-FREE
dolphin-safe adj (circa 1972) Indicates tuna caught using practices that don’t involve targeting dolphin pods with nets. In parts of the Pacific, dolphins and tuna swim together, and fishermen often catch tuna by going after dolphins, which are easier to spot.
B.S. METER: Moderate. There are no universal standards for what the term means, and the standards that do exist are rarely enforced.
wild-caught adj (circa 1975) Refers to fish caught in the ocean rather than raised in confinement; can include fish from eggs that were spawned in captivity and released, since in the U.S. no wild freshwater fish or marine mammals are permitted for sale.
B.S. METER: Moderate. Some “wild-caught” species, like grouper, are acquired by dynamiting reefs, bottom trawling, and other destructive methods. Look for the Marine Stewardship Council logo, which guarantees sustainable fishing practices were used, and check Seafood Watch for reports on which wild-caught fish can be eaten with a clear conscience. syn WILD ANIMAL
biodynamic adj (circa 1928) Describes a farming system created by Rudolf Steiner, of Waldorf School fame, considered by many to be a precursor to the term organic and requiring certification. Practitioners mix plant, animal, and mineral-based “soil preparations,” then prune and harvest according to astronomical cycles.
B.S. METER: Low. Despite the phrase’s hippie tenor, the certification process is more demanding than for organic, especially in the pasturing requirements, which make it virtually impossible for factory farms to qualify. Wines made from biodynamic grapes are on a roll, since they’re thought to have better terroir. They cost more, too. syn ORGANIC, SUSTAINABLE
gluten-free adj (circa 1944) Indicates a food without gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. An increasing number of Americans are diagnosed with everything from gluten sensitivities—a cluster of ailments that can include minor issues like headaches and joint pain—to celiac disease, a serious autoimmune response.
B.S. METER: Low. Per the FDA, the gluten-free claim requires food with this label to contain gluten in concentrations lower than 20 parts per million. see also WHEAT ALLERGY
local adj (circa 2000) Food purchased or consumed within a certain distance from where it was produced (e.g., within 100 miles).
B.S. METER: Moderate. Local emerged as an alternative to organic in some farming and consumer circles, as it often means “small family farm,” while organic can refer to a monoculture grown thousands of miles away. But the phrase has no legal meaning; last winter a Safeway in Missoula, Montana, had all of its produce promoted as “local”—including fruit imported from South America.
barn-roaming adj (circa 2002) Coined by Whole Foods in 2002 to describe the lifestyle of a grade of chickens raised in barns with no outdoor access. The grocer has since ditched the phrase in favor of “raised in free-to-roam barns,” which still means birds locked up inside.
B.S. METER: High. Instead, look for “pastured” chicken, which refers to birds that spend their days outside foraging.
nonfat adj (circa 1980) Describes processed food with the fat content chemically or mechanically eliminated. In 1977, a George McGovern–led U.S. Senate committee published “Dietary Goals for the United States,” which recommended significant curbs to America’s fat intake. The nation’s obesity epidemic was noted a few years later, and some have argued that it’s because food processors replaced fat with sugar.
B.S. METER: High. Nonfat foods are short on flavor, which manufacturers compensate for by adding sugar and hard-to-pronounce, multisyllabic ingredients. Food with no fat and lots of sugar is more fattening than food with high fat and low sugar. syn FAT-FREE, LOW-FAT and DELICIOUS
hydroponics n (circa 1937) A horticultural method in which a plant’s roots grow in a nutrient solution rather than in soil, usually indoors with grow lights or in naturally lit greenhouses; can be certified organic.
B.S. METER: Low. Hydroponics can allow for more efficient use of water and nutrients.
hormone-free adj (circa 1960s) Indicates an animal product produced without added hormones. Several hormones are USDA approved for use in lamb and cattle to increase meat production and marbling, as well as in cow’s milk. The hormone-free movement began around the time diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen approved by the USDA for cows, was determined to be a carcinogen and banned.
B.S. METER: Potentially extreme. You do want to buy hormone-free beef and lamb, but the label is often misleadingly applied to chicken, pork, and eggs, products for which no hormones even legally exist. Labeling pork “hormone-free” is akin to marketing an energy drink as “steroid-free.”