We all want to get the best nutrition for our money. In the midst of great hype over “eating clean,” however, it’s not really clear how. We see labels touting claims like organic, local, clean, and antibiotic-free. How do we navigate the sea of labels and claims made by food producers to ensure we get the best value?
It is difficult, if not impossible to nail down standards for many of these claims. Elizabeth Hall is an RDN, LDN, Corporate/Retail Registered Dietitian at Food City. Her role is to be a resource for nutrition and health for customers, store communities, and associates. As a Registered Dietitian, one of Hall’s primary goals is to translate science to the public and help dispel myths of “fad” diets that are often popularized in modern society.
When asked about clean produce, meat, or dairy, Hall makes a startling point. “‘Clean’ is a new term that has gained popularity in the media and therefore in the American public as well,” Hall says. “The term itself has no recognized definition in food science and is not regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).” “Clean” means different things to different people.
“Some food manufacturers view ‘cleaning up the label’ as replacing artificial ingredients with more natural ingredients and shortening their ingredient list,” Hall explains. “Unfortunately, the FDA does not provide a specific definition for ‘natural’ either.”
However, “organic” food production and labelling is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture. Organic produce is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, and other harsh chemicals. Organic dairy and meats are produced without added antibiotics and added growth hormones. Before a piece of produce, meat, or dairy can be sold as organic, the farm or business must go through five rigorous steps to become USDA certified. First, the farm or business selects a USDA-accredited certifying agent, submits the standard application and fees, and adopts organic practices. The agent reviews the application, and then an on-site evaluation is conducted. After passing, every producer is audited yearly to ensure integrity to the standards. The result of this process? An organic label meant to take the guess work out of avoiding chemicals and fillers.
Though their prices are higher than average, specialty food stores, such as WholeFoods and Earthfare, stock a wide variety of organic food. If you’re only looking for a few high-quality organic items, check out Kroger or Food City, which is known for sourcing its produce locally.
Another thing to note before you venture out to the land of organics: they are not all equally organic. Organic foods come in three grades: 100%, 95%, and 70% organic, the last of which cannot use the USDA Organic seal but instead uses the phrase, “made with organic ingredients.”
Many people prioritize other considerations over a USDA seal though. Manjit Bhatti, self-styled “cow guru” at Cruze Farms, suggests that “you will always stand the best chance of getting the highest quality food if you either grow it yourself or get it from somebody you feel you know.” And Hall reminds us that, whether they choose organic or not, everyone needs a variety of food groups in the right amounts. She encourages doing the bulk of your shopping from the perimeter of the grocery store while keeping an eye on eating less sodium, fat, and sugar. “Buying foods in their whole form and doing most of the preparation yourself helps you to control what all you put in it, which can help to lower those more harmful nutrients, such as sodium,” she suggests.
And as you’d suspect, the fresher food you can get, the better. The decision between frozen or fresh berries for your smoothie, for instance, is not about which packs more nutrients, but about which contains less preservatives—another reason to choose the farmers’ market over the canned or frozen food aisle. Sure, canned foods are extremely convenient, and it’s a good idea to keep some on hand, just in case. But packing your meals with preservatives, sodium, oil, and brine on a regular basis is not such a good idea. You want to look for “sodium free” or “low sodium” on the label, as the added sodium can deplete nutritional value. You also want to look for vegetables and fruits canned in water, not oil or fruit juice, to cut back on added fats and sugars. Hold poultry, meat, and fish to the same standard.
On the other hand, there are rare instances where canned foods can be the better option. Hall says, “the canning process increases some of the valuable nutrients found in some foods. For example, when tomatoes are canned, the lycopene content increases. Lycopene is the antioxidant found in tomatoes that helps to fight free radicals and chronic disease.” Canned tuna can be another good bet if you wish to eliminate the risk of mercury poisoning sometimes encountered with fresh ahi tuna steaks.
When it comes to protein, don’t forget beans, nuts, and lean meats like fish or shellfish. Hall provides an easy rule of thumb: “The average serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards.” That’s much smaller than our average portions here in the U.S. Of course, all the effort you put into sourcing the right proteins won’t matter if you’re going to cook them in loads of butter and oil. Thankfully, grilling season is once again upon us. But, for the cooler nights, get your baking or broiling game on.
To bring out the best in your newly purchased fresh food, it isn’t necessary to load it with fat for flavor. Line a pan with foil or parchment paper, or smoke or sear your meat to keep the flavor in. Generously season your poultry with garlic and herbs like rosemary and tarragon to accentuate its natural flavors. There’s no need to baste with heavy, oil-rich and sodium-laden sauces. Lighter marinades that focus on a lemon juice or vinegar base can work to accentuate flavor rather than mask it. And they work great as a toss for fresh veggies as well.
One practice you may not want your grocery dollars to promote is the use of antibiotics in animals that are part of the food supply. Why? Hall explains, “There are some instances where producers add antibiotics to feed or drinking water to help chickens gain more weight with less food. This creates a potentially dangerous situation because the more we use these drugs, the more infectious organisms become resistant to them, making antibiotics less effective when used for medical purposes.” If you’re sensitive to this issue, look for the “Raised without antibiotics” label when buying meat.
By contrast, “no growth hormones” stamped on packages of chicken is marketing, pure and simple. Though many are wary of the alternative, law dictates that no chickens can be injected with growth hormones in the United States. “Natural” is another unregulated term, but in common parlance it means that the food contains no artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors.
For dairy, Hall recommends choosing low-fat dairy, 1%, or skim, adding that dairy milk provides calcium and vitamin D, which are important for bone and mental health. Some believe that the FDA’s milk regulations are strict enough that you can essentially purchase any gallon of milk in the country without being worried that it will contain synthetic growth hormones, conventional pesticides, or ionizing radiation.
When labels get confusing one great strategy is to go directly to the source: farmers, that is. Thankfully, Knoxville provides plenty of farmers’ markets. When you go to farmers’ markets, you can often get to know people who understand exactly what has gone into each and every piece of food. You can ask what fertilizer was used, or if pesticides were used on the crop or in the feed. Many local farms also source to restaurants and grocery stores. Not only can you get firsthand information, but you can put your money back into the local economy.
Tennessee farmer and owner of Mauro Seed Company Dave Mauro takes the idea of knowing about the food you’re eating to its natural conclusion. Mauro is on a mission to encourage people to grow their own food, even if they are a beginner starting with a single seed packet and a small plot of ground. He finds that most people think of gardening as intimidating at first, and he can see why. But does he think this should stop them? Absolutely not. “There’s so much written about gardening that it’s almost overwhelming. The best way to start is get a pack of seeds, put them in the ground, and see what happens. Grow a pack of something this year— just do it. That’s the best way to learn and get in the game of how to garden. A lot of it is learning from your own experience.”
Mauro also extols the abundant benefits one may experience while gardening. Not only does it come with obvious health benefits, such as the elimination of pesticides, but Mauro notes that gardening can benefit you financially and spiritually as well. Ultimately, Mauro thinks the most best food you can eat is the food you know from seed to table. “The safest, best way to know what’s in your food is to grow it yourself,” he advises.
Another interesting way to purchase seasonal foods locally is to work through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSAs are typically subscription services where an individual purchases a membership which guarantees a box of produce and other farm products over the course of the growing season. To find your best source of local food, see our list of farmer’s markets, CSAs, and other local sources on the following page.
Navigating the clean food frenzy doesn’t require a PhD. And though it may take a little more time to seek out a farmers’ market or a little more money to shop in the organic section, thinking about what you put in your body may do much to sustain it. After all, you are what you eat.
Locally and Regionally Sourced Produce, Meat, and Dairy
Cruze Farm is a family dairy in Knoxville. They produce non-BGH dairy products including milk, buttermilk, and chocolate milk. Available in local markets and food co-ops. Visit their website.
Dixie Lee Farmers’ Market
At 12740 Kingston Pike at Renaissance Center, 9 a.m.-noon, Saturdays.
Fresh from the Earth Farmers’ Market
In the Grove Center Shopping Center, Oak Ridge, 2 p.m. Mondays and Fridays.
Gatlinburg Farmers’ Market
At 705 E. Parkway in Alamo Steakhouse parking lot, 8-11:30 a.m. Saturdays. Visit their website.
Greeneville Farmers’ Market
Located at the Greene County Fairgrounds, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Wednesdays. Visit their website.
Lakeshore Farmer’s Market
5908 Lyons View Pike, Fridays 3-6 p.m.
Local Harvest is a directory of over 30,000 CSAs, farms, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and restaurants that feature locally sourced food. They feature CSAs in the Knoxville area. View the directory.
Loudon County Farmers’ Market
Downtown Loudon behind Tic-Toc Ice Cream Parlor, 5-7 p.m. Thursdays.
Norris Farmers’ Market
In Norris Commons, Mondays, 3-6 p.m. Visit their website.
Knoxville FARM Market
At Laurel Church of Christ, 3457 Kingston Pike, 3-6 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays.
Market Square Farmers’ Market
Market Square, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays. Visit their website.
Maryville Farmers’ Market
At New Providence Presbyterian Church, W. Broadway. 9 a.m. Saturdays at Church Avenue, and 3:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays.
The Mauro Seed Company
Oak Ridge FARM Market
Located at Jackson Square at Georgia Avenue, 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays and 3-6 p.m. Wednesdays.
Seymour Farmers’ Market
Located at First Baptist Church of Seymour, 11621 Chapman Highway, 7-11 a.m. Saturdays.
University of Tennessee Farmers’ Market
In the UT Gardens, 2431 Joe Johnson Drive, 4-7 p.m. Wednesdays.