If you’re trying to be healthy and responsible about the food you put in your body, the grocery store can be more disorienting than a funhouse. You’ve probably already spent countless hours reading labels, comparing prices, and avoiding the landmines of processed foods and high-fructose corn syrups; after all, you’ve heard the dangers. Everywhere you turn, the bevy of choices begs the question: organic or non-organic? In the meat and dairy sections, there are so many different labels it can leave you reeling: organic, hormone free, antibiotic free, free-range, grass-fed—and the list goes on. Determining what the best choices are can be endlessly frustrating.
The sad truth is that many of these labels are misleading. Suppliers can claim to be organic, but unless the label states "certified organic," the USDA hasn’t verified that claim. Eggs can be technically organic even if the chickens spend their lives miserably crammed into cages. Beef might be “grass-fed,” but that doesn’t mean those cows lived a sunny existence in open pastures as the term implies; nor does it guarantee they weren’t pumped with hormones and antibiotics.
Most health-conscious people who want to make responsible food choices share the same ideals: eating organic as much as possible, avoiding harmful chemicals in food, supporting local agriculture, and opposing cruelty to animals. Trying to process the meaning behind all the labels can be a major headache, and in the end you could still end up paying extra money for nothing. How can a person avoid falling prey to empty promises?
It’s really quite simple: get to know your local farmers. Maybe that sounds difficult or intimidating, but nowadays it’s just as easy as going to the grocery store, and in some cases, even easier. If you live in the city, farmers are bringing their produce, eggs, beef, chicken and more to a market nearby. Most farms now have their own websites detailing where you can find them and what they offer. A market is a great place to ask questions and learn more about the food. What are living conditions like for the animals? Is the farm certified organic?
If you’re short on time or going to markets isn’t your thing, more and more farms are now offering CSAs. In most community-shared agriculture programs, you enter a partnership with a local farm and pay a set amount up front; you then get a weekly allotment of the farm’s harvest throughout the season. Subscribers share in the risk and benefits of farming and support local agriculture. Rather than spending time finding decent produce at the grocery, each week you’ll be given a box of fresh and in-season pickings. Some farms offer CSAs for eggs and meat as well.
However you choose to navigate the mystifying world of food terms and labels, knowing where your food comes from is really the only way to guarantee you’re getting what you pay for.