Here's How To Decode Trendy Food Labels

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With the proliferation of many convenience foods and ingredients purporting to be “healthy” or perhaps just as importantly, “green” in one way or another, shopping for groceries can be a daunting task.There’s even an entire supermarket chain, Whole Foods, that happens to be wildly successful (it last reported net income in excess of $117 million, up nearly 31 per cent over the prior year), dedicated to the concept of shopping by buzzword.

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There was once a time when the only thing that really mattered when it came to eating food was a vague concept known as “wholesomeness.” Difficult to define yet seemingly desirable, wholesomeness was perhaps more easily defined by examples of what was not wholesome rather than what actually was.

Anything that wasn’t made from scratch was probably not “wholesome,” anything that didn’t stick to your ribs was not “wholesome,” and anything that had ingredients that you couldn’t identify as food was probably not what Nonna or your cultural equivalent considered “wholesome.”

Not anymore. These days, many more buzzwords are creeping into our language, and they can make grocery shopping a real chore. To cite an example of just how confusing the experience can be, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In defence of Food, offers this little vignette about his milk shopping experience at Whole Foods:

“Some of the organic milk in the milk case was ‘ultrapasteurized,’ an extra processing step that was presented as a boon to the consumer, since it extends shelf life. But then another, more local dairy boasted about the fact they had said no to ultrapasteurization, implying that their product was fresher, less processed, and therefore more organic.” Organic, ultrapasteurized, local, more organic — it’s enough to make anyone just grab a random jug out of confusion and frustration.

Yet, in a way, perhaps one could argue that in the end, it all boils down to “wholesomeness,” whatever it is — many people seem to have an interest in food that is not just “wholesome” for themselves, but for the animals and society as a… whole — in terms of its production, sustainability (another loaded term), and its overall impact on the environment and the people who produce it.

Chipotle’s carnitas burrito, for example, wasn’t really a hot seller until its founder, Steve Ells, made the switch to antibiotic-free pork. The switch was inspired by an article called “The Lost Taste of Pork,” written by Edward Behr, about a Niman Ranch pork chop Behr had first tasted at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. After the switch, Chipotle customers started purchasing more carnitas, despite an initial 22 per cent premium.

But when you pay a premium for foodstuffs bearing (or boasting, depending on your personal proclivities toward these newfound terms) such labels as “MSC certified,” “Fair Trade,” or “Biodynamic,” are you really getting what you pay for? What do these terms really mean? Sure, they might make you feel good, but do they really do any good? Especially with the current state of economic affairs, even the most die-hard of “green” shoppers probably wonder if these terms are “worth it” and actually mean anything. After all, what good is paying double for organic chicken if it’s still the same breed of chicken as “regular” chicken?

Oftentimes, the best thing to do, when possible, is to cut through all the marketing and just take a few minutes and talk to the people who make your food — this, of course, is probably only possible at farmers markets, assuming they are populated by “real” farmers (that is a whole separate article in itself), and only for certain food products — namely produce, and perhaps dairy, meat, and seafood.

For instance, there are many farmers who choose not to become certified organic because of the sheer cost, but may conform to the required practices anyway (or perhaps, exceed them). But, we also recognise that not everyone has the time, or the desire, to talk directly with food producers, and that’s where product labelling is supposed to step in and do everyone a service.

So we’ve assembled a list of terms that you’re likely to encounter when shopping for food. While we recognise it is possible to practically write a book on quite a few of these terms (and many have been written), we’ve tried to limit ourselves to their official definitions and the main issues to keep in mind when encountering one of these terms on product packaging, so that you can make a better informed decision when shopping for food.

Vine-Ripened

Honestly, this one is a bit of a shill, but you probably already suspected that. The question is, just how much of a shill is it?

The term refers to tomatoes; vine-ripened tomatoes sound like they've been left on the vine until red ripe, but what it actually means in practice is that they were left on the vine just a bit longer than 'non-vine-ripened' tomatoes, just long enough for the first sign of red to appear on a mostly still green tomato.

Before the tomato reaches the store, a blast of ethylene gas (a type of gas naturally produced by ripening fruit such as bananas) turns all tomatoes red, regardless of whether they are vine-ripened or not, to convince people that they'll taste decent.

Vine-ripened won't really taste any better, but they'll probably cost a good deal more.

See how to build a ridiculously expensive kitchen >

Hothouse-Grown

A hothouse is essentially a heated greenhouse used to grow plants out of season. Common examples of hothouse-grown vegetables and fruits include rhubarb, tomatoes, and peppers.

Results vary by crop for tomatoes, its pretty hard to beat the flavour and texture of a field-grown tomato picked at the height of ripeness from a farmers market, or even better, grown in your own backyard.

Some people swear by hothouse-grown rhubarb, though when cooked, it holds its colour and flavour better than field-grown rhubarb and is less stringy.

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Sustainable

Here's a term that's used often by marketers and seldom defined.

In the context of food production though, the simplest definition probably goes something like this:

Food that has been produced or harvested in a 'sustainable' manner minimizes environmental impact and takes into account resource and population management for the sake of future generations.

But like many terms used for marketing, there is no official definition.

See 12 essential ingredients for your pantry >

Heritage Breed

In his book Eating Animals, Foer goes on at considerable length about the development (or downfall, if you agree with his perspective) of several animals that are central to meat-eating Americans: namely, chickens, pigs, and turkeys.

To sum up a couple hundred pages of reading, basically, pigs have been bred into leaner animals (the 'other white meat') that reproduce unnaturally quickly, while chickens and turkeys have been selected to grow faster on less feed, and in the case of layer hens, produce more eggs.

All this has occurred to the detriment of their health and welfare and resulted in an almost mandatory use of antibiotics in their feed. These are animals that would not survive on their own in the wild past their usual dates of slaughter.

For consumers who already possess this knowledge but arent ready to give up meat, a few producers have stepped in claiming the use of 'heritage breeds' Pollo Buono, for example, in the case of chicken, DArtagnan in the case of turkeys, and Flying Pigs Farm in the case of pork.

These animals are supposed to come from stock predating most of todays factory-farmed animals, may lead better lives, and well, quite frankly, taste better.

But the only way to make sure is to examine each producer on a case-by-case basis.

Check out 11 high tech cooking gadgets >

Artisanal

This isn't a legally regulated term either, and so it gets used a lot because it sounds good -- when people think of artisanal, they're probably thinking of a passionate baker, slaving away over some hot hearth in the wee hours of the morning, making the same, perfect baguette that he does every morning.

Someone French, probably.

Or a grape grower, patiently culling his grapes to make sure only the best ones make it into the barrel.

The dictionary definition implies that something artisanal is made by hand. If you believe in that as a starting point, adding the 'food perspective' probably involves making something by hand, slowly, in small batches, and with great care, resulting in a superior product.

In the olden days, the original sense of the term would have implied becoming an apprentice, then a journeyman in a craft, finally culminating in some sort of 'masterpiece' that would result in ones status as an 'artisan.'

So is that $30 piece of cheese behind the display counter a masterpiece?

Well really, the only way to find out if an 'artisanal' product is worth its weight in gold is to taste it.

See how to build a ridiculously expensive kitchen >

Halal

Halal means 'permitted' or 'lawful' in Arabic.

With respect to food, anything that is permitted under dietary guidelines outlined in the Quran is considered 'halal.'

Here in the U.S., it is most commonly used to refer to meat.

Halal meat must come from animals that are slaughtered in a humane manner; more specifically, the jugular vein must be cut with a sharp knife and all of the blood must be drained from the animal.

This is because the Quran prohibits the consumption of animal blood, in addition to pork, pork products, and animals dead before slaughter.

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Pareve

Pareve, also sometimes spelled 'parve' or 'parev,' appears on kosher products and means that the product is 'neutral' in the sense that it does not contain meat or dairy products, and can be served with either meat or dairy.

This is useful for those who observe the restriction against consuming meat and dairy together.

See 12 essential ingredients for your pantry >

Meat Grading

The USDA runs two separate programs for grading one is mandatory and the other voluntary. The mandatory program inspects for 'wholesomeness,' while the voluntary program is the one that most people are familiar with.

On beef, you will likely see one of three grades, based primarily on marbling, the fat found within the muscle. You will probably see USDA Select and Choice most often Choice has more marbling than Select.

At the top end of the scale is Prime, most often seen in specialty retailers and restaurants. At the bottom end of the scale are USDA Standard, Cutter, and Canner, which are not usually seen in stores and used to make other products such as ground beef.

For poultry, you should only see Grade A meat in stores. Grade A simply means that 'poultry products are virtually free from bruises, discolorations, and feathers. Bone-in products have no broken bones.

For whole birds and parts with the skin on, there are no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking' Grades B and C are used in processed products.

Check out 11 high tech cooking gadgets >

Probiotic

Probiotics seem to be all the rage these days.

Just walk down the dairy aisle in the supermarket and there are bound to be dozens of brands of yogurt all advertising the use of probiotics and perhaps some purported health benefits.

Some claim improved immunity, while others claim better digestion.

But do they really do any good?

Experts say results will vary simply because there are so many strains of bacteria, each of which yield specific benefits, and many of which are untested. And your stomach's already full of probiotics anyway…

See how to build a ridiculously expensive kitchen >

Certified Angus

Certified Angus Beef is a registered trademark and brand of beef that comes from Angus cattle.

In order to be certified, the beef must fall in one of the USDA's top two grading tiers: USDA Choice or USDA Prime.

There are other criteria considered, such as carcass weight, fat thickness, the size of the rib-eye, and some cosmetic considerations, but basically it boils down to marbling how much intramuscular fat is in the beef.

Certified Angus Beef is purported to have superior marbling to non-branded beef.

Check out some grilling tips and essentials >

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