Consumers want 'natural' food, but labels often confuse

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, 9:23 a.m.

For some people, summer is the season when consumers choose from local farm-fresh produce and shy away from the tables of large commercial growers.

“I think the consumers are starting to differentiate industrial food — processed boxed food — from fresh, healthy food,” said Greg Boulos, 36, who owns Blackberry Meadows in Fawn.

And they're finding it now at farm markets that have sprouted mostly in and near urban areas, increasing by 17 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Department of Agriculture.

In Pennsylvania, most of these farm markets operate one day a week. They get an estimated 570 customers per market day, according to a Penn State Cooperative Extension report.

“The farmers' markets are exploding,” said Brian Moyer, Penn State Cooperative Extension, in Lehigh County, one of the report's authors.

“But the number of farmers isn't growing as fast,” he said. “There's more market than there are potential farmers for now.”

Most of the farmers in the Alle-Kiski Valley own farms that are considered small — under 500 acres.

The food they produce would be what anyone would consider “locally grown” crops.

But other labels, such as “certified organic” and “naturally grown,” aren't so easily defined by the uneducated consumer.

So what's a farm market shopper to do?

Talk to the farmers, a lot, is what experts and the farmers, themselves, advise.

How natural is that natural food?

Descriptions of the purity or the lack of an array of pesticides, fertilizers and other additives is tricky business.

“It's important for consumers to understand that how food is produced is not black and white,” said Heather Mikulas, Penn State Extension educator in Allegheny and surrounding counties.

“It isn't just that food is conventional, and laden with pesticides, or it's organic,” she said.

There's a whole spectrum of descriptions. There are official labels such as USDA certified organic, where government inspectors verify that growers meet standards such as not using synthetic insecticides. Then there is “sustainable agriculture,” which isn't an official label but a method of farming that eschews the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as genetically modified food.

And some descriptions are purely for marketing.

“Terms like ‘wholesome' mean nothing,” Mikulas said.

So, much of the descriptions of food are similar and potentially confusing.

For example, many small farmers obtain a “naturally grown” certification, where they meet much of the criteria for organic, but they don't have government-approved inspectors, all the paperwork and expense of organic.

“A lot of farmers feel they are going above and beyond USDA organic standards, but the certification can be expensive, especially during the three-year transition when you can't use the label, but you are using organic farming practices that might cost more,” said Alissa Matthews, program assistant for Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

What does ‘natural' mean anymore?

The marketing of food just makes it more confusing.

“The confusion is if you are in a grocery store and see a package that says ‘natural,' they can use that word because the product at some point came from something that was grown,” Matthews said. “So, technically, most things are ‘natural.' ”

For Matthews, the “green-washing” of food marketing confuses the meaning of the legitimate labeling in the produce arena.

Clearly, a recognizable label such as “organic” isn't as confusing.

Boulos, who runs Blackberry Meadows with his wife, Jen Montgomery, said they attract new customers because of their USDA organic logo.

They sell at two organic/naturally grown and locally grown farm markets at the Farmers@Fire house in Pittsburgh's Strip District at 23rd Street, and at Phipp's Conservatory in Pittsburgh's Oakland section.

“It's a brand,” Boulos said.

“We pay the fees and keep the records, and we get to use the brand of ‘organic,' ” Boulos said. “And for us, it brings lots of new customers because of the recognition. It's something people identify with.”

Conversely, some farmers aren't interested in official labels.

“We're not concerned with the certifications,” said Joe King, 29, one of three brothers that own Freedom Farms in Middlesex, Butler County. They operate farm market stores in New Kensington and Valencia.

“It's been hijacked by corporate facilities and industry facilities and not local farmers,” King said. “Just because someone has a stamp on it, you should not trust it. You should know where it comes from.”

Go to the source

The good thing about the farm market besides the immediacy of freshly picked vegetables is the availability of the growers to talk.

“People shop at farmers markets for that relationship because they build a relationship with their farmers,” Moyer said. “Farmers are quite happy to tell their story.”

The King family grows produce on about 40 out of 350 acres they farm, with nearly 50 kinds of fruits and vegetables and more varieties of each.

“You have to develop a relationship with your local farmers and know where your food is grown for your kids,” King said.

“People come up here and talk to us to know where the food comes from, and that makes us happy,” he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a writer with Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 724-226-4691.

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