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What food product labels really mean

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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 percent over the prior year), dedicated to the concept of shopping by buzzword.

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 Defense 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 percent 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 recognize that not everyone has the time, or the desire, to talk directly with food producers, and that’s where product labeling 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 recognize 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.

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