Thursday, July 7, 2011

Seven Steps to a Healthy Pantry: Step 2

Step 2: Define Your Terms

You can’t find your destination unless you know how to get there.  And what would happen if all the roads along the way were mislabeled?  Let’s define our terms to help us find our way.

I encourage you to think through the definitions I’ve offered – do you agree with them; if not, what do they look like in your life? – and dig deeper using the links I’ve provided. 

I know it takes a lot of work up front to learn about this stuff, but we are talking about our bodies, one of the most precious gifts God has given us.  It’s worth it!  And once you’ve done the work once, you’ll own a treasure chest of knowledge that you can dip from over and over again to sustain you throughout the rest of your life.

Healthy.  First and foremost, we must begin here.  The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (citation 1).  To keep things simple, I’m going to agree with and adopt this definition for this series.

If I were to put this definition into my own words, I would say it like this:

A healthy person is one who is living a life that is whole and at rest with itself – mentally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually – within the limitations that exist in that person’s life.

In other words, I believe healthiness cannot exist without reconciliation to God.  (For a much more eloquent Biblical ethic on health and medicine, please read here.)  Within the contexts of reconciliation to God and the reality of a fallen world, healthiness exists in a constant state of tension between God-intended wholeness and the Fall-aftermath of limitation, disease and infirmity.  As in all things, the goal is to move toward God and His intention as much as possible.

As I stated above, I’m adopting the WHO definition of ‘healthy’ for this series because I do not intend to focus on the spiritual aspect of food in this series.  I’m trying to dig into the nitty-gritty practicals of what it means to eat well.  Maybe someday I’ll do a post called “God & Eating”, but not today! 

Organic.  This is a term that is legally regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture, within their National Organic Program as defined in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) the following are definitions related to the organic agricultural industry (citation 2):
·         Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
·         ‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
·         Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
·         Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.

As you can see, the term “organic” is rather nebulous.  In general, you can think of anything labeled USDA Organic as free of pesticides, additives, preservatives, and anything else that doesn’t naturally occur. 
For a product to be labeled ‘100% organic’ every ingredient in the product, except for salt and water, must be organic.  For a product to be labeled ‘organic’ 95% of the ingredients must be organic.  For a product to carry the label ‘made with organic ingredients’ 70% of the ingredients must be organic.  In all three cases, the ingredients that are organic must be denoted on the label.  (Citation 3)

Though the term is a bit general, becoming certified organic is a rigorous process.  For more details on that, click here.  

The above applies to fruits and vegetables only.  I have been unable to find federal regulations governing the use of the term organic as applied to meat or poultry (including eggs).  Several states have regulating bodies, but – honestly – I haven’t found the answer yet.  I’ll get back to you if I do!

(I do know this: organic does not automatically mean grass-fed or free-range.  You can have corn-fed organic beef, for example.)

All-natural, 100% Natural.  As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no regulating body covering the terms “100% natural” or “all-natural.”  So, when you see that listed on products, I suggest you read the labels and do your research.

For an excellent discussion of food labels and what they actually mean, I highly suggest reading this link.  It is from several years ago, but the information is still current.

Free Range (& more).  According to the , “there are no restrictions on use of other truthful labeling claims such as ‘no drugs or growth hormones used,’ ‘free range,’ or ‘sustainably harvested’” (citation 4). 

In this case, I would suggest researching a brand online (like Buddy’s All-Natural Chicken) in order to decide if they produce food in a way you want them to.

Food Allergens.  According to the FDA’s Food Labeling Guide, “a ‘major food allergen’ is an ingredient that is one of the following eight foods or food groups, or an ingredient that contains protein derived from one of them:
·         milk
·         egg
·         fish
·         Crustacean shellfish
·         tree nuts
·         wheat
·         peanuts
·         soybeans
“Although more than 160 foods have been identified to cause food allergies in sensitive individuals, the "major food allergens" account for 90 percent of all food allergies. Allergens other than the major food allergens are not subject to FALCPA labeling requirements.”

At this point, only Crustacean shellfish and tree nuts are defined or regulated further than the general designation of “food allergen”.  In other words, if you see the term “gluten-free” on a package, the manufacturer has chosen to put it there freely – the term has no common definition.  Read the labels!

For more information on the Gluten-Free Label, click here.

Preservative(s).  Since this post is already long and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, I’m going to let another amazing blogger address this topic: for a brief explanation of Food Preservatives, take a short trip to, an awesome resource I hope you’ll return to.

One last note on preservatives: according to the FDA’s Food Labeling Guide, “when an approved chemical preservative is added to a food, the ingredient list must include both the common or usual name of the preservative and the function of the preservative by including terms, such as ‘preservative,’ ‘to retard spoilage,’ ‘a mold inhibitor,’ ‘to help protect flavor,’ or ‘to promote color retention.’”

Partially Hydrogenated or Hydrogenated.  Partially hydrogenated oil is only produced artificially at high temperatures with metal catalysts in chemical plants, which means that it is not natural at all. Hydrogenation fundamentally degrades the nutritional properties of natural vegetable oils and creates trans fats that cause cardiovascular diseases.”

So, if a product claims to be all-natural but it lists ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ as an ingredient, versus canola oil for example, you know the claim is false.

Sugar & Sugar Free.  Sugar on a nutrition label is defined as “sucrose” (there are three types of sugars: sucrose, glucose, and fructose) or “a generic term that includes any of a class of water-soluble carbohydrates with various degrees of sweetness” (citation 5).  In other words, the front of a package might say “sugar free” because it does not include sucrose.  In the end, however, that same product might be made up of 75% carbohydrate (all food is either protein, fat or carbohydrate…sugar is a carb).

Are you seeing a pattern here?  READ YOUR LABELS, and, more importantly, know how to understand them!!!!


  1. Wow, you did your homework, Jenny. I really like what you said about our goal being to move toward God. I think the same can be said for each of these things. Move toward organic. Move toward reading labels etc.

    If I think I have to do everything right now, I get overwhelmed. But if I think of taking steps toward something, I can do it.

    Nice work, dearest.


  2. Thanks Glenda! And thanks for reading through such a monster of a post. Yes, you're right: it's all about steps (at least for me - I know some people who do this all at once but not me!!!). It's taken me years to get to this point.

    For now know that the information is here if you ever need to come back to reference it.