Category: The More You Know

Organic and Natural Foods Industry Glossary of Terms

The Sweet Potato - crop of lettuce

If you’re new to the world of natural and organic foods and farming, this list will help give you the vocabulary to make informed food choices.

Farming

Organic Agriculture: Organic farming is a strictly regulated farming practice that doesn’t allow for the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Organic farming uses:

  • non-GMO (genetically modified) seeds;
  • environmentally-conscious farming practices
  • helps create and maintain nutrient-dense land
  • works with natural climate rhythms
  • protects water supply.

Lands also need to be certified organic which is a process that typically takes a minimum of three years. During this process, organic standards are employed in farming practices so that the land can be certified.

In North America, looking for the following labels from Canada Organic, USDA National Organic, Pro-Cert, Quality Assurance International lets you know the product has been certified as organic by an official third party organization recognized by the Canadian government.

Transitional Farming: Obtaining full certification as an organic farm is a commitment of both time and money. Crop farms interested in pursuing certification for land that had previously been used to grow conventional crops, must first apply for transitional certification. A “transitional” crop is grown on land that’s in the process of converting from conventional to organic. Certified transitional farms use organic standards in their farming practices and need to do so for a minimum of three years for organic certification. Before the three-year mark, any crops grown on the field are considered “transitional” crops and cannot be sold on the organic market.

Biodynamic Agriculture: Similar to organic farming principles, biodynamic agriculture also draws on insights made by Rudolph Steiner, a mid-20th century German philosopher. Today the biodynamic movement encompasses thousands of regenerative gardens, farms, ranches, orchards and vineyards in a wide variety of climates, ecological contexts and economic settings.  

Hydroponics: Hydroponics, a subset of hydroculture, is a method of growing plants without soil. Instead plants are grown in a mineral nutrient solution in water. Hydroponic nutrient solution can be made from fish waste, duck manure or normal nutrients (fertilizer).  Hydroponically grown plants are housed in plastic reservoirs in greenhouses.

Aquaponics: Refers to a system that combines aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals like fish, snails, or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. In normal aquaculture, waste from the animals raised accumulates in the water increasing toxicity. In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed into a hydroponic system where waste is broken down by bacteria and utilized by plants as nutrients. The water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.

Permaculture: A combination of agriculture and social design principles that work together to support natural ecosystems.  The three core tenets of permaculture are:

  • Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two principles. Sometimes referred to as the Fair Share ethic to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.

The focus of permaculture is not on separate elements but rather on relationships created among them by the way they are placed together. Permaculture design seeks to minimize waste, labour and energy input by building systems with a high level of synergy. To this end, permaculture designs are constantly evolving.

Local: Local produce, meat and seafood are fresher, healthier and have less impact on the environment because they’re harvested when ready and travel less of a distance to reach your plate. Moreover it keeps dollars invested in local communities.

The definition for local in use by The Sweet Potato is less than 200km, though no standard definition exists.

Clean: We use clean to mean free from synthetic chemicals including hormones and antibiotics, fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Clean does not mean a product has been certified organic, but it is non-GMO and raised and produced responsibly.

GMO Genetically Modified Organisms

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have had their DNA altered or modified through genetic engineering usually to introduce a trait not seen naturally in the organism. Where foods are concerned, many cash crops like soy, corn, canola, potatoes, alfalfa, squash, beets, and flax have been genetically modified to resist pathogens or herbicides or to change their nutrient profile.

With concerns related to food safety, regulation, labelling, environmental impact, research methods and the fact that some genetically modified seeds are the intellectual property of corporations, the public are increasingly demanding organic and certified non-GMO foods. At the Sweet Potato all our produce is grown from non-GMO seeds. As well, our full bulk and bakery line is GMO-free!

 

Animal Welfare

Cage-Free: Eggs produced by cage-free hens describes hens that may or may not be permitted outside but do roam freely. Eggs from hens that only roam indoors may be labelled “barn-roaming”, “barn”. or “cage-free”.

Free-range: Animals that are raised ‘free-range’ can roam freely outdoors for at least part of the day and can apply to meat, eggs, dairy farming.

Organic Meat: Organic meat comes from animals that have been raised without treatment of hormones or antibiotics and have been fed a diet free from anything grown from GMOs and with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. As well minimum space allowances and access to the outdoors are part of criteria that need to be met. Organic meat can be fully traceable from flock to farm and is certified by an independent third party.

 

Trade

Fair Trade: What started as a social movement that advocates for the payment of higher prices to exporters of commodities from developing countries to developed countries has become a fully certified industry. Fair trade practices seek to promote greater equality where inequality exists as the starting point.

It promotes sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers in developing countries. Fair trade is grounded in three core beliefs:

  • That producers have the power to express unity with consumers;
  • That world trade practices that currently exist promote the unequal distribution of wealth between nations;
  • Lastly, buying products from producers in developing countries at a fair price is a more efficient way of promoting sustainable development than traditional charity and aid.

With the certification of the industry, producers now need to apply for and pay to join a certifying body. Some criticism has arisen around how this prevents access for the most marginalized producers.

Direct Trade: Advocates of direct trade practices promote direct communication and price negotiation between buyer and farmer/producer. There is no precise definition for the term and no third-party certification. The term was coined for the coffee industry but is now applied to other growers such as cocoa, nuts and handicraft artisans. The term was born out of frustration with the limitations of Fair Trade certification, mainly that certification is too onerous and costly to farmers and artisans who must qualify and apply for the very certification meant to offer them protections.

Our Banned Ingredient List

The What: Buying Practices

From our first days in the Farmer’s Market at High Park, we’ve been clear about our buying standards. We value the trust you put in us to nourish your family and we really want you to feel at ease when you shop here. From our very first days till now, our produce has always been GMO-free.

We’ve always tried to source produce that’s both organic and local first. When that’s not available we look to our trusted local, clean farmers and then to certified organic farms further afield. And we always work to ensure our labeling is clear and direct so you know exactly what you’re buying.  

Over the years as we’ve grown as a company, we’ve been lucky to add entire departments and a crew of buyers to our team. It’s important for us to ensure our team is well equipped with current data to make the best decisions about what foods to stock on our shelves.

 

The Project: Make a List We Can Stand Behind

To this end, we set forth on a project to analyze a bunch of ingredients we haven’t historically let in our store to ensure there was enough reason not to. We want these sorts of regular analyses to become part of how we do business because so many of the banned ingredient lists floating around out there are woefully out-of-date. This information is helpful only insofar as it’s kept current.

We want to set the standard for best practice in the industry when it comes to our buying policies. And we wanted to test certain claims. So we looked hard at the available research and we formalized a BIG list of ingredients we won’t let in our store. This is our Banned List.

 

Here’s Why

We’re not scientists, we’re not pretending to be, and for lots of the stuff on our list there’s no firm consensus in the scientific community. After all these things have been approved for consumption by Health Canada. But when a number of studies echo similar results, we listen. When the allowable safe “dosage” for certain ingredients consistently decreases over time, that’s a red flag (we’re looking at you artificial food colourings). We’re not interested in just abiding by legal requirements. We’re interested in holding ourselves to a stricter standard.

When it comes to human health, the well-being of farmers and producers, and harmful ecological practices, we want to err on the side of safety. Ingredients you find on our list are there because they satisfy one of three criteria:

 

1) Research suggests it’s detrimental to human health;

2) Research suggests farming or processing the ingredient is harmful to workers;

3) Research suggests the environmental impact of producing the ingredient is harmful.

 

Take butter flavour as an example, diacetyl. This is a fine ingredient to ingest as far as we know. It’s often included in microwave popcorn that you buy at conventional stores, and used to create a rich butterscotch flavour in some alcoholic beverages.

But there’s increasing evidence that the way in which it’s processed is potentially hazardous to the workers who handle it, causing serious lung disease when inhaled. In fact, the US National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety has issued this exact warning while the California legislature seeks to bans the use of diacetyl entirely.

 

The Banned List
Take a look at our list of of banned ingredients and please be in touch if you have follow up questions or concerns. We’d be pleased to discuss our rationale and the studies we looked at to arrive at our list.

Banned Ingredients 1p PDF for web – June 2017

Paper vs. Plastic

The Sweet Potato - paper bags vs plastic bags. We looked at the data and plastic bags won out

Image via Climate Kids

Every now and again we get asked about why we stock the kind of grocery bags we do. Good question! With paper, compostable, and plastic bags available, we wanted to be sure we were making the most intelligent decision for ourselves and our customers.   

Here’s an overview of the data:

Paper Vs. Plastic

As it turns out, of the three types of bag available, paper is worst on the environment! We know… we were shocked, too.  After all, paper is a natural material, which is fully biodegradable and at the very least recyclable. But that’s not the full picture. In fact it turns out that a whole lot of GREENWASHING is responsible for our notions of paper being the more eco-friendly alternative.

Paper bags use a lot more resources in the manufacturing process and generate a heck of a lot more waste for a bunch of reasons:  

  • Paper is HEAVY. Its volume takes a lot of energy – as in fuel and electricity – to transport and process and it occupies a lot of space in landfills.
  • Producing paper bags uses an awful lot of freshwater.
  • Paper bags tend to be used ONCE because they’re so prone to ripping.

Consider the following chart:

 

 

 

The Sweet Potato Toronto - chart showing the environmental impact of various types of bags. Paper bags are the clear loser when it comes to environmental responsibility

Chart via Chemical & Engineering News

The Takeaway:

Plastic bags outperformed paper bags environmentally on manufacturing, reuse, and on solid waste volume and generation. And the more times you use a single plastic bag, the less the environmental impact.

Don’t Forget to Reuse and Recycle

One of the things that further separates plastic bags from paper is that data shows they’re often reused at least once or twice before their retirement.

The great news for Torontonians too is that plastic bags can now be recycled.  And this is so important:  that plastic bags end up where they’re supposed to at the end of their lifecycle. One of the most destructive aspects of plastic bags are when they end up where they shouldn’t be, particularly when they land in lakes and oceans.

What About Compostable Bags?

Thinking these were the environmentally friendly option, we carried compostable bags in the shop for a bit many years ago. Then we learned that compostable bags are actually banned in municipal green bins! It turns out municipal waste treatment facilities can actually be harmed by biodegradable bags in their system.
We All Win with Reusable

Directions to create a no sew reusable bag from an old tshirt via Mommypotamus. Because reusable bags are the most environmental responsible

Image and no-sew tshirt bag instructions via Mommypotamus

It’s estimated that every reusable bag made from cloth or recycled plastic eliminates the use of 1000 plastic bags!

If you’re feeling crafty, here’s a fun DIY project if making your own bag from materials around your house is your jam. We’re particularly loving the old superman t-shirt bag!

Also stay tuned for a new BYOB(ag) incentive program coming to 108 Vine!