Vegetables: Know Your Label Lingo
A carrot used to be a carrot and a tomato a tomato. But today, consumers are increasingly interested in how their veggies are grown, which has changed all that. Here are some labels you might come across when shopping for vegetables to help you separate the meaningful from the meaningless.
Vegetables labeled “organic” are grown without conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. The farm is inspected by USDA-approved agents to make sure the rules are being followed. Some states, like Oregon and California, have their own additional organic standards that farmers can choose to follow and be certified for. Importantly, all organic vegetables are grown on farmland that has been farmed following organic practices for three years, since soil health and environmental stewardship are important elements of organic agriculture. During the second year, vegetables grown on the land can be labeled as “in conversion.”
Unless labeled otherwise, you can assume vegetables have been grown conventionally. They are likely grown using pesticides as well as synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers. They may have been fertilized with sewage sludge. They may be genetically modified or subject to ionizing radiation. Many vegetables are specifically bred to withstand long travels to market and the handling involved in large-scale grocery stores.
While not a verifiable label, you may see vegetables labelled “no spray” or “no pesticides,” particularly at farmers markets and specialty markets. These labels are often used to denote vegetables that, while not certified organic, are being grown with some organic principles in mind.
“Local” / “Locally Grown”
There is also no legal definition for produce labeled “local.” Most stores that label vegetables as “local,” however, will have a policy as to what “local” means. For some, it’s a certain radius from the store, but more often it means that the vegetables were grown in the same state as the store.
“Country of Origin”
Country of origin labels became mandatory in 2008. The law requires food retailers to notify consumers at point of sale with information about the origin of certain foods, including vegetables. The labels simply tell you where the produce was grown.
There are no laws or rules about labeling vegetables “heirloom,” but the term usually refers to varieties (or, in agricultural language, “cultivars”) that have been grown for a long time but without being subject to industrial or large-scale agriculture. They tend to be varieties that are grown in gardens and passed among families or local growers. Often prized for their superior flavor, heirloom varieties tend to come in a wider range of colors and shapes than more commonly available vegetables. Note that they usually haven’t been bred to withstand the excessive handling of large grocery stores and are usually available at smaller outlets, such as farmers markets.
“Fresh” / “Ripe”
These labels have no legal meaning. Depending on who runs the produce section of your market, the “ripe” sticker may be helpful or it may simply be a way to sell vegetables that are about to turn well past ripe.
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