Michael Pollan is at it again.
His new book, “Cooked,” is guaranteed to be a runaway hit, largely because Pollan has become the high priest of ethical eating ever since he published “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in 2006. So, I guess we have him to thank for the fact that we now spend $2 more per gallon on organic milk, suddenly believe the world should be gluten-free and think twice before reaching for that hot dog at summer barbeques.
We have him to thank for one other thing: The fact that pretty much everything we eat now touts its lineage right front and center on its packaging. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, food claims were mainly about how products would make you look, e.g., they were low calorie and fat free. Today, claims are all about where your food actually came from — in other words, how your food was grown or what your food ate before it landed on your plate (in the case of meat and eggs). Have you ever seen the “Portlandia” sketch with the couple at a restaurant asking about the lineage of its farm-raised chicken? I highly recommend you Google it for a good laugh.
Consumers are now way more educated and care much more than ever about where their food is coming from and how it’s raised. As a result, there has been a surge of better-for-you claims on food packaging, everything from “gluten-free,” “cage-free” and “no GMOs (genetically modified organisms)” to “organic,” “100 percent real” and “grass-fed.” Whereas packaging of the past simply put a burst on the box and called it a day, packaging is now being used to educate consumers about the importance of knowing where their food came from and why that makes it better. Consumers are not just embracing it — they are actively looking for it. According to a recent Examiner.com article, more than 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of genetically modified foods.
People are not only buying these foods, but they are also making them an entire way of life — e.g., joining “claim clubs.” Last week, a woman in line with me at Trader Joe’s talked about how thrilled she was with all the gluten-free offerings at that store, not because she suffered from celiac disease, but because she voluntarily opted to stop eating gluten to feel better. Michael Pollan and his protégés are vehemently “no GMO,” and this movement has spawned many organizations and websites. Twenty-first century moms wouldn’t dream of serving their children anything but grass-fed milk, cheese and meat.
So what exactly do all these things mean? Here’s a guide to some of the new terminology popping up in the supermarket aisle.
Wondering why you’re seeing blades of grass on so much packaging lately? It’s because companies want to show off just what they’re feeding the animals who made your food. According to the American Grassfed Association, grass-fed products are better for people, animals, the planet and communities. It defines grass-fed animals as those that have eaten nothing but grass and forage from weaning to harvest, have not been raised in confinement and have never been fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Grass visuals are prominently featured on packaging for Organic Valley milk, Pat LaFrieda meat, Big Gorilla beef jerky and Vital Farms’ eggs, which put a creative spin on the grass-fed message by saying, “Our hens live outdoors.” They also use the term “ethical eggs,” which is as catchy as all get-out. Not coincidentally, Vital Farms was “Est. 2007,” the year after “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was published. Just call this the pasture that Michael Pollan built.
You’d have to be living under a loaf of bread to not know that the anti-gluten movement has been raging for a while now. Sufferers of celiac disease have been avoiding gluten — a substance present in cereal grains, especially wheat, that is responsible for the elastic texture of dough — for years, but in the past decade, it seems that gluten has been shouldering the blame for a whole plethora of other illnesses, and many Americans are voluntarily cutting it out of their diets. In fact, TIME magazine labeled the gluten-free movement second on its top 10 list of food trends for 2012. It’s questionable (and often controversial) that gluten-free’s popularity is here to stay, but many brands, from Applegate to Newman’s Own to Annie’s Homegrown, are counting on it, offering gluten-free variations on their most popular offerings. Grain-loving company General Mills offers more than 200 gluten-free products. But perhaps the best-named gluten-free product is Goodbye Gluten bread. How’s that for telling it like it is?
A few weeks ago, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and Congressman Peter DeFazio introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, a bipartisan legislation that would require the Food and Drug Administration to label clearly GMOs in food so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat. For the past few decades, the FDA has allowed genetically modified foods to be marketed without labeling, saying they were not materially different from other foods because the genetic differences could not be recognized by taste, smell or other senses. But today’s research shows that GMOs are harmful to both people and the environment, and the public is demanding to know which products contain them. Brands like Silk, Earth Balance, Nature’s Path and Amy’s Kitchen are not only proudly GMO-free, but they also feature sections on their websites explaining what this claim means. Even if they don’t say “no GMOs” on their packaging, nearly all organic brands — like Cascadian Farm and Applegate — are GMO-free, and my guess is they’ll soon be wearing that badge very proudly.
But this new claims terminology is not just being used by in-the-know, farm-to-table foodies. People’s Most Beautiful Person Alive, Gwyneth Paltrow, just published “It’s All Good,” a cookbook that shares the gluten-free recipes she makes for her own children. The book just topped the New York Times bestseller list, further proof that the general public is developing a greater interest in high-quality, well-grown, well-fed food. Michael Pollan, eat your heart out.