Seeing Key Westers in New York is such a treat. Last week I had a unique opportunity to go to the Fancy Food Show in Manhattan with Jimmy and Susan Weekley, proprietors of Fausto's Food Palace. The show is put on by the Specialty Food Association and displayed 180,000 products, including confections, cheese, coffee, and more cheese, snacks, spices, natural and organic products and more. Did I mention the cheese? I never knew so many varieties of cheese existed.
The show included 2,400 exhibitors from 80 different countries and regions. The Weekleys are obviously pros, because they had their strategy mapped out and were off and running upon arrival. It was an insight to a side of the grocery business most of us rarely get to experience. They knew the right questions to ask vendors regarding availability in Key West, packaging, display and ingredients. They take such pride in their work and it shows. If you have not been in their stores I urge you to experience them and support our local businesses. I tagged along, watched, learned and even asked a few questions myself.
It was better than the Simpsons episode when Homer takes his family to Costco for brunch on a Sunday and tells Bart and Lisa that anything with a toothpick in it is free, I sampled my way from one end of the room to the other. Yum!
One word kept popping up at almost every booth: Natural. Natural seems to be the newest fad in food buzzwords and it made me wonder exactly what "natural" means when describing food products. I had a vague idea of what the word might imply, but not a clear understanding of the definition. Does natural mean we are eating the food the way it is found in nature? Is the food processed, and if so which processes are considered natural? Does it mean organic? Is it good for us or at least better than foods that don't say natural on the label? I decided to do a little pharmacist/chef-in-training investigation.
When I asked the vendors at the food show what it meant, I got varied answers with the most common being "no preservatives." Later, I did my own research and learned that the FDA does not have a definition for the word, and they do not regulate it. The FDA does state, however they have no objection to using the term if there are no added substances, artificial additives or colors. Even though that's a step in the right direction, it made me wonder about added hormones, antibiotics, processed sweeteners, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), dyes and chemicals that are fed to the plants and animals that are in the products. Those are not considered natural, are they?
To me, the word "natural" implies that the products are minimally processed, that they are obtained from natural sources and they contain no manufactured ingredients that were not originally in the food, including what the plant or animal was fed. So it appears that the word "natural" on a food label is there simply to imply a value or benefit that may or may not be present in the food.
Unlike "natural" the term "organic" is more reliable. Surprisingly there were fewer organic products at the show. When asked, most vendors explained organic ingredients were expensive and difficult to obtain in quantities large enough for mass production. The USDA and FDA both have definitions for organic food and labeling, where the USDA certifies organic products and FDA regulates organic labeling. The USDA defines organic as "a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used."
In addition, an organic product must contain 95 percent organically produced ingredients and the remaining ingredients must be either unavailable organically or are non-agricultural products.
While some food labeling may seem confusing, organic certification is one that is more trustworthy. There have been many studies done on organic food versus conventionally grown. Some results conclude some organically grown products have slightly higher nutritional benefits and other studies say it is not true. The nutritional value in food is important, but not the only part of the equation. The impurities, contaminants and additives involved in the processing and the stripping of nutrients from raw foods in manufacturing processes is a huge concern. Pesticides, residues, dyes, artificial flavorings and chemicals are not allowed in organic foods.
Our population is experiencing higher incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimers, stroke, asthma, allergies and decreased immune systems, and it makes you wonder about our food and health. Is it genetics, lifestyle or environmental choices? My guess is that it's a combination of all three. The truth is, the science of DNA, cellular physiology, genetics and diseases has not progressed to the level that offers a black and white explanation. For that reason, I buy organic when available, I buy fresh when available and I buy locally grown when available.
The way we put food on our tables has dramatically changed over the past few decades and we are becoming more conscious of our food supply. The more questions we ask, the more we learn. The product selections we make can supply our bodies the nutrients necessary to sustain a long healthy life. Education is key.
To your good health,