As the Slow Food movement gains popularity across America, terms like "sustainable" and "artisan" are showing up on more menus. But there are no actual "truth-in-menu" laws, and even the word organic is used loosely. There's a vast difference between the term "organic," which may mean food raised without pesticides or antibiotics, and the more intensive "certified organic," which is legally regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The phrase "all-natural," only means "minimally processed" with no artificial ingredients or colors.
A restaurant can call its ingredients organic whether they're factory-farmed Chilean products grabbed from the shelves of Wal-Mart or hand delivered by a small farm after being picked that morning.
Ultimately, diners need to be aware, self-educate, and ask questions. Diners also should pay attention to their taste buds. Organic generally tastes better -- produce is more earthy and pungent, and tomatoes have higher sugar and acidity.
Organic food has become Big Business. According to the Organic Consumer"s Association, organic food sales hit $18 billion last year. Though still only about 2.5 percent of the U.S. agricultural market, demand for organic has grown 20 percent annually in recent years.
The end result of the rising popularity of organic -- and lately, local -- food has led not only America’s largest corporations to join in, but restaurants have had to change up their menus as well, to satisfy their customers.
I am not a fan of regularly eating out because of the major unknowns at most restaurants, and this article confirms my suspicions. However, there are times when eating out is either necessary, or meant as a special treat.
But how can you be sure you’re getting the quality you’re expecting?
Truth-In-Menu Laws: If You Say It, Serve It
Although the author of this AZCentral article claims that there are no Truth-In-Menu laws, this is not entirely correct. In fact, there is a so-called “Truth-in-Menu law,” which is meant for, and used by, restaurateurs to ensure that the information provided about menu items is accurate, and conforms to the federal regulations set forth by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). However, it seems to do little to ensure compliance when it comes to stating the truth and nothing but the truth about what’s really on your plate.
In an article written by Stephen Bart -- attorney and associate professor of law and leadership at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management at the University of Houston -- hospitality managers have the right to advertise their food and beverage products in a way that casts them in their best light, but may not misrepresent their wares.
These “accuracy in menu” laws are relatively straightforward, and their chief aim is to ensure honesty in menu claims, both in regard to the price charged and the food that is served.
Part of this includes being careful when describing food attributes, including the preparation style, ingredients, origin, portion sizes, and health benefits. However, it’s a complex area, and becoming increasingly so due to greater demands from customers to know more about their food, especially as it relates to the origin of the food being served.
The word organic is used as loosely on restaurant menus as it is on other labels. And, the phrase “all-natural” means next to nothing, although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the term as “minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or colors.”
As Mr. Bart points out, a good motto to help restaurants stay out of trouble would be: If you say it, serve it!
But as you all know, money usually speaks louder than integrity, no matter what business you look at, and restaurants are just as likely to “embellish” the truth about the food they serve as any major food corporation is.
If You Want Organic, There’s Only One Label That Can Assure It
The USDA Organic seal is your BEST and only assurance of organic food quality.
As a side note, it"s also the international gold standard for personal care products that contain organic agricultural ingredients, because the ingredients in USDA certified beauty products are certified organic for food, adhering to much stricter standards as they are intended specifically for human consumption. This is why I"m very pleased to share that my new certified organic skincare and cosmetics line will be one of only five companies in the U.S. to achieve USDA Organic certification.
Farmers and growers of organic produce bearing the USDA seal have to meet the strictest standards of any organic label.
The USDA"s National Organic Program (NOP) took effect October 21, 2002, and regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.
The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients.
In order to qualify as organic, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced materials
- Products labeled simply "organic" must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, whereas
- the label "made with organic ingredients" can contain anywhere between 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients
Organic products cannot be irradiated, are not allowed to contain preservatives or flavor enhancing chemicals, nor can they contain traces of heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of tolerances set by the FDA. The pesticide residue level cannot be higher than 5 percent of the maximum EPA pesticide tolerance.
For the complete National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances under the USDA organic label, see this link.
So remember, if you see anything that says it’s “organic,” it must specify “USDA Certified Organic” to be meaningful.
Is Your Restaurant Being Honest? Common Sense Guidelines for Siphoning Out the Truth
Ultimately, if you eat out you need to be aware of these issues, educate yourself, and as always, ask questions!
If you see heirloom tomatoes in January, or fresh citrus on the menu in August, it’s simply not reasonable to believe it’s a local product as it’s the wrong season for these products to grow. And, if they’re not locally-grown organics, where did they come from, and just how organic are the overseas variety?
As P.F. Chang"s research and development chef Robin Stotter said, it’s also wise to use your taste buds. The majority of people agree that organic tastes better. If you’ve ever compared a conventionally-grown tomato with an organic vine-ripened one, you’ll just KNOW the difference. The organic tomato actually has FLAVOR, whereas most conventionally-grown tomatoes just taste wet at best.
The Organic Trade Association also has a few recommendations to offer restaurant goers looking for an authentic organic experience.
By asking the few simple questions listed below, you are in a much better position to determine whether the food you are being served is indeed organic:
- Which items, specifically, on the menu are organic?
- Who supplies this restaurant with these organic items?
- Is this a certified organic restaurant, or does it simply serve organic items on the menu?
Based on the answers to these questions you can choose with greater confidence, knowing that products are traceable from the farm to the consumer, so outright lying would not be in the restaurant’s best interest. And, you know that if the restaurant claims to use certified organic products, they must carry the USDA seal. If the produce is USDA Certified Organic, then you have the added assurance that there is an actual process in place for verifying that the produce was produced using organic practices.
Aside from that, I recommend switching over to home-cooked meals for the majority of your lunches and dinners. Not only will it save you lots of money, you will also know exactly what"s in the dish you"re eating, which is key when you"re trying to lose weight and maintain good health.