By Emily Schwartz
Organic? Conventional? Local? All natural? With all of the different labels used to describe foods these days, it can be difficult to sort through all of them to make the best decision on what to buy at the grocery store.
The majority of today’s fruits and vegetables are conventionally produced. This means that they are grown using traditional or “common-place” methods that are generally accepted as “safe” and “acceptable.” These methods, which may include the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic modification, have been used for years to produce larger amounts of fruits and vegetables to help meet a growing consumer demand for affordable produce with a quality appearance and year-round availability.
Many of the local fruits and vegetables available during our Wisconsin growing season are conventionally produced. Although local produce may certainly be organic, organic is not synonymous with being locally grown. Currently, there is no set definition for a food labeled as local; however, it often refers to a food produced within a certain geographical area. Depending on individual perspectives, a local food may be produced within a set number of miles or grown in a certain county, state, region or country where a person may reside. In general, local fruits and vegetables may travel shorter distances from the field to the store. This yields fresher and more flavorful produce. In addition, this shorter travel time gives fruits and vegetables less opportunity to lose important nutrients. Buying local produce may offer the opportunity to support your local community, as well as introduce you to the farmers growing your food.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandates that a food carrying the organic label be produced using sustainable practices without the use of conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically engineered products. However, forms of organic pesticides and fertilizers may still be used in the growing process. To be able to label a product as organic, a producer must become certified by the USDA. This process may take years to complete and may mean that some producers are following organic growing methods even without the organic label on their produce.
With increasing availability of organic products, natural is another label that is increasingly being used to market foods. Unlike organic, there are currently no set regulations qualifying the use of this term. Today, as much of our food undergoes some sort of processing before it reaches our plate, it is hard to define a food as “natural” from a food science point of view. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only loosely defines a “natural” food as one that may be without added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic additives. As this topic is of much debate, the FDA is currently requesting public comments and information to possibly formulate a set definition in years to come.
Regardless of what types of fruits and vegetables you buy, there are benefits to foods in each category. We at Festival like to encourage that all forms matter, but ultimately, the decision to buy organic, local, natural, conventional, or any combination of the above comes down to personal preferences and beliefs.
Emily Schwartz is a nationally accredited registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN) serving the Eau Claire and La Crosse communities as Festival Foods’ Western Markets Regional Dietitian.