Labels 101

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.

Great Gluten-Free Choices

Do you (or a loved one) feel better when you don’t eat gluten? If so, you probably eat mainly fruits and veggies, and pasture-raised meats. But if you’d like to occasionally try some other gluten-free products, here are some great choices.
Arrowhead Mills Gluten-Free All Purpose Baking Mix  The ingredients are simple, no corn or soy. Verified non-GMO. It’s easy to use to bake quick breads.

Mary’s Gone Crackers They’re organic and verified non-GMO. Made from a mix of grains and seeds, with no sugar or trans fats. They’re so good, they’re gone before you know it.

Enjoy Life, Eat Freely For a tasty treat now and then, these products have simple ingredients and are soy and dairy free. Also verified non-GMO.

Erewhon 100% Whole Grain Cereal This cereal is non-GMO verified, contains less than 1 gram of sugar per serving, and goes great with either milk or coconut milk.

Lundberg Organic Rice Cakes These rice cakes taste great, are non-GMO verified, and work great
as the base for cream cheese, melted cheese, and spreads.

Lundberg Organic Brown Rice Pasta Sturdy. Never mushy. A good wheat pasta substitute.

Superfoods for You!

Kefir: It’s kind of like yogurt, but it has more protein and less sugar. It does, though, have that same creamy texture, great taste, and the helpful probiotics of yogurt. Those probiotics are a healthy type of bacteria that strengthens your immune system. Kefir can be substituted for yogurt in salad dressings and other recipes. It can be found in the dairy aisle of your grocery store.

Jicama: It’s a root vegetable and has a slightly sweet taste and a crunchy texture. It also has insulin, which can help get rid of belly fat and promotes good bacteria in the gut. Jicama also has a lot of vitamin C for boosting collagen and fighting wrinkles. It can be eaten raw or stir-fried. You can find it in farmers markets and Mexican groceries.

It’s jam-packed with fiber, calcium, and omega-3s, as well as iron, which some women can be low in. Sprinkle on salads, soups, cereals, or to thicken stews. Find it at natural or whole food groceries.

Black garlic: Due to fermentation, the garlic acquires a sweet, caramel-like flavor, and the natural antioxidants are double those found in regular garlic. It’s great in lowering cholesterol and preventing cancer. And—it doesn’t give you icky breath!

Kelp: It’s loaded with vitamin K, calcium, and other nutrients that are powerful agents against breast cancer. It also has a type of fiber that blocks the development of fat. Good in meatballs and soups, or try kelp noodles (

Nutritional yeast:
Low calorie and cheese flavored, what’s not to like? It’s also full of protein and B vitamins for energy, de-stressing, and preventing chronic diseases. Use as a dairy-product substitute, for example sprinkle some on baked potato, popcorn, or pasta. Find it in health food stores.

Barley: The starring nutrient in barley is niacin, which promotes healthy hair and skin. It also fights cancer and keeps cholesterol low. It’s a great substitute for pasta, rice, or oatmeal. You can usually find it in the baking goods section of the grocery store.

Four Unique Ingredients for Better Holiday Treats

Whether you’re looking for an out-of-the-box dessert idea or trying to incorporate more natural ingredients in your party table spread, consider using these four nutrient-rich ingredients to wow your guests this holiday season!

►Dates: Fat-free and fiber-rich, pitted dates can help bind and add natural sweetness to many holiday treats. Substitute for some added sugar in nut-based bars and pies or make date caramel sauce and drizzle over ice cream, apple slices or other holiday baked goods.

▪ Date Caramel Sauce: Soak 1 cup pitted dates in 2 cups water for 2 hours to soften. Drain and puree with ¼-½ cup milk (any variety), 1 tsp. vanilla, and 1 Tbsp. coconut oil until smooth.

►Chia Seeds: Full of fiber and heart-healthy omega-3’s, chia seeds add a fun, nutrition-rich crunch to granola or cereal-based bars. Or use in pudding-like desserts, as chia seeds swell in liquid to form a gel.

▪ Maple Cinnamon Chia Pudding: Whisk together ½ cup chia seeds, 2 ¼ cups milk (any variety), 1 tsp. vanilla, 2 Tbsp. maple syrup, and ¼ tsp. cinnamon. Divide into dessert cups and chill until pudding forms, about 3 hours.

►Black Beans: Adding neutral-flavored black beans to chocolate cakes or brownies is a delicious way to get a little more nutrition. Packed with protein and fiber, this sneaky legume addition will help keep hunger at bay this holiday season.

▪ “Better” Peppermint Brownies: Puree 15 oz. canned black beans (drained and rinsed) with ⅓ cup water until smooth. Mix puree into 1 box dry brownie mix and add 1 tsp. peppermint extract.  Bake according to package instructions.

►Greek Yogurt: A protein and calcium powerhouse, Greek yogurt is a great nutritional trade-up in recipes calling for sour cream or cream cheese, like frosting or cheesecake.

▪ Yogurt Cream Cheese Frosting:  Beat 8 oz. reduced fat cream cheese, 2/3 cup plain Greek yogurt and 1 cup powdered sugar together until smooth. Spread evenly over your favorite dessert.

Vanilla Yogurt Cheesecake

1½ cups graham cracker crumbs
¾ cup sugar + 2 Tbsp., divided
½ cup salted butter, melted
8 oz. low fat cream cheese, room temperature
4 large eggs
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbsp. flour
2 cups nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt

Preheat oven to 350°F.
1. Combine crumbs, 2 Tbsp. sugar and butter in a small bowl.  Press into the bottom of a lightly greased 9” spring form pan.  Set aside.
2. Beat cream cheese until very smooth.  Add eggs, one at a time, and ¾ cup sugar until mixture is smooth.  Add vanilla and flour; mix to blend thoroughl.  Gently whisk in yogurt.
3. Pour batter over crust. Bake 42-50 minutes or until barely set in the center.  Turn oven off and cool cake in oven for 20 minutes.  Remove and bring cake to room temperature on countertop. Then, refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.  Remove spring form pan sides, slice, and serve with cranberry sauce, chocolate, or other favorite toppings.

Yield: 12 servings

Inga Witscher: Organic Farming Rocks!

inga witscher

By:  Jan Carroll

Inga Witscher, host of Wisconsin Public Television’s Around the Farm Table, has been farming for nine years and now runs a thirty-acre certified dairy farm, milking eleven Jersey cows with the lower-tech bucket milking system. She is a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and it was her dad who talked her into moving to West-Central Wisconsin and trying her hand at this farm. The family had lots of experience with big vegetable gardens and an organic creamery as she was growing up. She was not sure about the new venture at first,but it didn’t take long before she felt at home. “I just fell in love with it. It completed me,” she said.

Witscher uses managed intensive grazing for the cows, a method that involves moving the cows to new pasture every twelve hours. This gives each patch of pasture a forty-day rest. Milk from her farm is shipped to Westby, Wisconsin, where it is made into butter, cottage cheese, and cheese and then sold in the Madison area. Witscher notes that even her cows eat locally, since she supports local farmers by buying hay and grain from them.

As a kid, Witscher says, everything the family ate was off their farm. She feels the trend toward organic sustainable farms that serve local markets will continue to grow because people are becoming more aware of it and more educated about it. She feels small and midsize farms will guide the community supported agriculture (CSA) movement. Although it can be an adjustment learning to eat some of the new foods you receive in CSA, she adds that “CSAs are great, because they push you out of your comfort zone.” Also, kids are growing up with fresh organic local food as the norm, so they will expect the same as they grow into adults who buy produce and other farm goods. “Wouldn’t it be great if we got rid of labels of local and sustainable because they had become so common?” she wonders.

Living in the city, it can be hard to connect with local organic farmers. Besides looking for them at area farmers markets, Witscher offers three ways to cultivate relationships with your local farmers:

  • Throw a local-food potluck party, where each guest brings some local organic food or a dish made with a local organic food.
  • She advises, however, to remember that these are working farms, and although farmers love to have you stop by, they will be taking time away from their work to talk with you, so limit your time there, bring a small token of appreciation like a bottle of wine, or offer to help with tasks around the farm, like weeding the garden. Leave your dog at home!
  • Invite local organic farmers to speak to your group or at your event or dinner party. This is nice, she adds, because it allows farmers to get off the farm.

Witscher lists two challenges to small and midsize organic farmers. One is the lack of available land. She’d like to increase her herd to fifty cows, but she’d need more land to do so, and it’s hard to come by. If you can find afordable land, if it hasn’t already been transitioned into organic land, that process takes three years, which is quite an investment since it is expensive to convert regular land to organic land. That process of going organic is also an emotional commitment for the farmer because it can often mean you lose the camaraderie of local conventional farmers. Second, she agrees that organic food often costs more, but she explains that is because the cost of farming is high, especially organic farming. But, she says, even though the cost of organic milk is high, there is a huge demand for it. There aren’t enough organic farmers producing organic milk to meet demand. Witscher says she strategizes often about how to make the farm more financially feasible.

In looking to the future, Witscher would like to have better communication and mutual learning opportunities between organic and conventional farmers, to get to know and interact “just as farmers,” sharing ideas such as cover crops to prevent erosion. In organic farming, “the soil is the foundation of everything else,” she explains. From there, the main thing is to make sure the cows are happy and relaxed, and then fewer other issues arise healthwise. She is happy to report that women “are the fastest growing sector in agriculture,” though it has taken a while to become accepted.’

Season 3 of Around the Farm Table will be on public television later this fall, probably in October sometime. Check local listings for day and time. Witscher says the goal of the program is to promote original local products and to show people what those products are like and how to use them, with recipes and ideas. By visiting and featuring organic farmers from all over the state, Wisconsin viewers can become more educated, and hopefully this will encourage them to try more local foods! Witscher loves the way the program “connects the consumer to the farmer.”