Five food words and what they really mean - or don't

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 10:43am

(CNN) -- Confused about what terms like "local," "green" and "sustainable" mean? You're not the only one trying to weed through it.

Luckily for us, Nate Appleman has an answer or five. He's the Culinary Manager of Chipotle Mexican Grill, a 2009 James Beard Rising Star Chef and a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef and he's here to clear things up.

"There are a lot of great things happening in food right now as it relates to local and more sustainable. And a lot of food companies that would like for you to think they are part of that," Appleman said.

"When dealing with vague words like 'local' or 'fresh' or 'natural' that have no standard definition, it's important for people to understand what claims are being made, as there are many who try to benefit from using them."

Five Food Words and What They Really Mean - Or Don't: Nate Appleman

1. Local

"Local food is great for a couple of reasons. Food that is raised or produced locally is often fresher and better tasting as it arrives in restaurants or markets very shortly after it is produced, spending less time in transit. For example, most produce in the United States travels some 1,500 miles from where it is grown to where it is served, and that takes time.

But local food also creates and supports opportunities for farmers and food artisans, and that is also important. Buying from local, sustainably minded farmers and food artisans helps contribute to their growth and encourages the next generation of those who will have a respect for the way food is grown, prepared and ultimately consumed."

2. Green

"When I think of green, I think of greenwashing. Apart from describing fresh veggies, green has no real meaning as it relates to food and often seems to be used in an effort to convey some sense of sustainability or environmental responsibility, whether that's real or not."

3. Sustainable

"I think of sustainable food as food that is raised in indigenous areas and in traditional ways --- ways that match natural patterns and systems. Truly sustainable food is hard to do at scale and in a place where we expect the same variety and abundance of food year round and regardless of location.

When looking to purchase sustainable ingredients, look for key terms such as 'naturally raised' and 'hormone free' when selecting meats, 'local' and 'organic' when selecting produce, and 'pasture-raised' when selecting dairy products."

4. Natural

"Natural is another nebulous term. According to the USDA, food is natural if it doesn't contain artificial ingredients or added color and is 'minimally processed.' It doesn't say anything about how the food was raised. When you see words like 'natural,' it's important to understand what that means to the people using the word, as its standard definition doesn't really tell you very much.

Look for products that use the word 'natural' to describe a specific practice - such as naturally raised meats, which come from animals that are raised in a humane way and without the use of antibiotics or added hormones."

5. Fresh

"I think of fresh food as having never been frozen or processed. Fresh is a great place to start, but to really eat the best tasting food you can, fresh isn't enough. You need to understand how animals have been raised and how produce has been grown, as those variables really impact on the quality and taste of the food."

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