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What 6 Food Buzzwords Really Mean

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What 6 Food Buzzwords Really Mean

You’ve likely read about the controversies surrounding GMOs and scanned the new gluten-free aisles in your supermarket, but do you know what those terms mean? More important, do you know whether they mean anything to you and your health?

Here’s a run-down of some of the most common food buzzwords in the media—or on food labels—in 2016:

1. GMO
The initials stand for “genetically modified organism.” These are foods that have genes from another plant or animal inserted into their genetic codes. Food is genetically modified for a variety of purposes, including improving crop yield, reducing the need for pesticides, pest, disease and drought resistance, and even better nutrition. One of the more controversial uses of genetic engineering is to create tolerance to herbicides and insecticides—commonly in crops such as corn and soybeans—so applications of toxic chemicals don’t affect crops while they wipe out weeds and pests.

Some of the combos may sound Frankensteinian—like injecting strawberries and tomatoes with fish genes to protect them from freezing—but many experts say GMO foods are safe. Not everyone agrees. A 2003 commentary in the journal Nature Biotechnology raised a number of potential unintended consequences of GMO foods—including the possibility that they could create molecules that are toxic or allergenic to humans—but there have been no valid scientific studies that have conclusively ruled GMOs safe or unsafe.

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2. Organic
To be considered “organic” in the US, any food product must be grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, GMOs or ionizing radiation to kill insects and microorganisms (irradiated milk, which has an extended shelf life, is a commonly sold product exposed to ionizing radiation), according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the organic regulating agency. Organic livestock, including cows, pigs and hens, must not be given antibiotics or growth hormones, both stock-in-trade for conventionally raised meat and dairy animals.

If a product is labeled “certified organic,” a government certifier has visited the farm to make sure the food meets USDA organic standards (which also includes protecting crops and animals from contamination from nearby conventional farms).

There are three terms you need to know when you’re scanning labels in the supermarket. That’s because there are three types of organic products, according to the USDA:

  • 100% Organic, which is made entirely of organic ingredients
  • Organic, which means it has at least 95% organic ingredients
  • Made with Organic Ingredients, which contains at least 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the other 30%, including no GMOs; and foods that contain fewer than 70% organic ingredients that can’t make the “organic” claim on the label but which can list those ingredients with others on the side panel.

Studies have been inconclusive about whether organic is healthier than conventionally grown or raised food products. One benefit, especially for kids, is a reduced exposure to toxic chemicals. There has been some research evidence that organic produce also may have higher antioxidant levels, largely because antioxidants are a plant’s weapon of fighting off pests itself. One study, a 214 multi-nation review of more than 340 research papers published in the British Medical Journal, found that organic fruits and veggies may be 20 to 40 percent higher in these beneficial plant chemicals.

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3. Gluten-free
What is gluten and what’s so bad about it? The first question is easier to answer. Gluten is a protein mix found in grains including wheat, barley, rye, oats and hybrids such as tritcale and others. And there’s nothing inherently bad about it unless you have something called celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which gluten can damage the small intestine by mounting an immune response against it. It can cause nutritional deficiencies, other autoimmune disorders (type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, for example), neurological problems including migraine and epilepsy, and intestinal cancer. Celiac disease is detected by a simple blood test. Despite the mass hype about it, there’s no good scientific evidence that anyone other than those with celiac disease benefit from a gluten-free diet.

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4. Vegan
You know that vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans take it one step further: They avoid all animal products, including dairy, honey, eggs, and many won’t wear leather, fur, silk or wool. Some believe that it’s tougher to be a vegan than a vegetarian, particularly when it comes to getting enough protein, but there are plenty of plant sources, including soy, beans, nuts, nut butters, even veggies such as potatoes, broccoli, kale and spinach. And there are major benefits. Large studies, such as the EPIC-Oxford research project, have found that vegans, like vegetarians, have about a 30 percent reduced risk of heart disease and may live longer than meat-eaters.

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5. Grass-fed
You’ve seen this term on labels in the meat section of the supermarket. It simply means that the animals who provided the meat you’re buying—beef, bison, lamb, bison, goat or sheep—grazed on grass and whatever they could forage. Unlike conventionally raised animals, they’re not sent to feedlots to be fattened up on corn. They’re also not given antibiotics and hormones. The American Grassfed Association and the USDA both have strict certification requirements before the “grass-fed” label is affixed to the cello-wrap on your lamb chops or ground bison. There’s a health benefit to paying a few extra dollars for grass-fed meat. Studies on grass-fed beef , for example, suggest that it may be lower in saturated fat and higher in good fats such as omega-3 fatty acids, which can protect your heart. Some studies have found it’s higher in vitamins A and E, as well as antioxidants, too.

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6. Locally sourced/grown
More and more people have become focused on where their food comes from, and there’s a good reason for that. Produce, for example, can be depleted of its vital nutrients if it’s shipped long distances. According to one study from the University of California at Davis, travel time for fresh fruits and vegetables can be anywhere from five days to several weeks, depending on how they’re shipped. Vitamin C tends to degrade shortly after harvest, so the California orange you eat in Maine may not have very much by the time it gets to you. But even “locally grown” food may travel 100 to 200 miles to get to you. To get really local food, your best bet is to buy from nearby farm stands, markets or farm trucks that come to urban areas from nearby agricultural land. Or, grow your own!

 

 

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