Go to most any natural foods store, and you'll find a huge number of environmentally conscious packaged goods. The aisles are awash in sustainable, organic, GMO-free, fair-trade, grass-fed, and responsibly sourced products. But what do all those terms mean? Here's a guide to choosing the most eco-friendly foods-not only for your body's health, but also for the health of the planet.
Organic. The most common of the earth-friendly designations, organic refers to growing methods that eliminate synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Instead, organic producers emphasize soil and water conservation and renewable resources. On average, organic farms use about 70 percent less energy than industrial farms.
Sustainable. Sustainable products are produced using techniques that don't harm the environment and preserve agricultural land. Not the same thing as organic, sustainable methods are sometimes even more earth-friendly. For example, organic raspberries grown in South America and shipped to Idaho aren't sustainable. On the other hand, there's no guarantee that sustainable products are also organic.
GMO-free. GMOs can cause organ damage and reproductive abnormalities in animals; pollute water; and reduce diversity. Because there are no labeling requirements for GMO products, some manufacturers opt for verification through a non-profit group called the Non-GMO Project. The organization offers the "Non-GMO Project Verified" label for GMO-free products tested at accredited labs.
Local. On average, food travels about 1,500 miles from farm to consumer. By contrast, local foods travel an average of about 45 miles. However, some studies show that food transportation uses a fraction of the energy that's used by farming equipment. And food traveling cross-country by train may account for fewer greenhouse gas emissions than foods trucked across a state. And keep in mind that "local" doesn't necessarily mean "organic."
Grass-fed/pasture-raised. If you eat meat or dairy, look for sustainable products. Cattle, poultry, and fish eat 80 percent of the corn grown in the United States-more than humans do-and producing that corn uses enormous resources. "Grass-fed" means the animals receive natural forage, including grass, hay, leaves, and tender stems of plants. Grass-fed animals, however, may be kept indoors for much of their lives. "Pastured" or "pasture-raised" means animals roam freely outdoors and receive a diet of natural forage.
Fair Trade Certified. Under fair trade programs, farmers are given financial incentives and resources to use only organic and sustainable growing methods, including reforestation and water conservation. Additionally, bird habitats are preserved.
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). According to some estimates, wild-caught fish could become a thing of the past in less than 35 years, thanks to overfishing and pollution. To help combat this problem, the Marine Stewardship Council offers the "MSC Ecolabel," a voluntary labeling system. The label ensures that the seafood was caught without endangering the species or harming local ecosystems.
Packaging. In 2010, an estimated 75 million tons of packaging waste ended up in landfills in the United States alone. Additionally, some food packaging contains toxins, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), that leech into the environment (and your body). Plastics are the worst, but canned foods can contain BPA in the lining. Look for minimally packaged products, compostable or recyclable packages, and BPA-free or reusable glass containers.
Our FavoriteEarth-Friendly Finds
Packaged foods aren't the best choices for the environment-but you can step a little lighter on the earth with these more eco-friendly options
Kashi OrganicSimply Maize Cereal: made from organic, GMO-free corn.
MadhavaOrganic Pure & Raw Honey: glass jars avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
NutivaHemp Seed Shelled: don't need pesticides for growing.
Bar HarborNew England Clam Chowder: MSC certified as sustainable.
Boulder CanyonKettle-Cooked Potato Chips: bags can be composted in home compost systems.
Equal Exchange Organic Coffee: fair trade, supports sustainable growing practices, and preserves bird habitats.
MadhavaOrganic Coconut Sugar: sustainably grown and harvested.
Navitas NaturalsBlueberry Hemp Superfood Power Snack: made from organic, fair trade ingredients.
Saffron Road Chicken Pad Thai: made with certified humane chicken.
NibMorDark Chocolate with Cacao Nibs Extreme: organic, vegan, and fair trade.
Tera's WheyOrganic Whey Protein: unsweetened whey powder from grass-fed cows.
NumiOrganic Tea: made from fair trade ingredients, with recycled packaging and soy-based inks.
TruRootsOrganic Sprouted Lentils: nourishing to the soil.
Wild Planet Wild Skipjack Light Tuna: sustainably caught and packed in BPA-free cans.
Lisa Turner is a certified food psychology coach, nutritional healer, intuitive eating consultant, and author. She has written five books on food and nutrition, and she developed the Inspired Eats iPhone app. Visit her online at inspiredeating.com.