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So, while the labels placed on foods should be helping us to make better choices, sometimes they offer contradictory statements that are open to interpretation.

I live in the Washington DC area where we have a number of grocery stores that feature health foods. Yes Organic Market, My Organic Market, the Tacoma Park-Silver Spring Coop, and of course Whole Foods all carry a number of whole foods and supplements to support health – which is not to say that every single thing that is sold in these stores is healthy. And it’s often in these stores where label reading is somewhat more complicated.



As consumers we sometimes are fooled into thinking that foods that sport labels saying they are “natural,” and “organic” are automatically healthy.  But actually, under Food and Drug Association (FDA) policy, food manufacturers can use the label “natural” when the product has no synthetic and artificial ingredients. The organic label requires that the product meet the standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Organic Program. Nothing in the FDA guidelines or the USDA’s standards test for the health supporting qualities of the product in question.



Defined by regulation, the Label “healthy” means that the product must meet certain criteria, which limits amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium that the product can contain. Additionally, the food must contain minimum amounts of vitamins, minerals or other beneficial nutrients.

So the next time your mouth starts watering when you see some kind of frozen confection that is “organic” and “all natural,” don’t assume you’re making a healthy choice. Remember to read past those claims that suck you in! Read the label and especially take note of the sugars and fats you might be taking in (in the name of virtuous eating)!

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The organic label may help you to choose one product over another – but there are at least 4 tiers involved in organic labeling.



Food manufacturers can use 100% Organic label if: the product contains 100% organically produced ingredients; any added water and salt are ingredients that cannot be identified as organic. If 100% organic, the label may include the USDA organic label, or an organic label from another certifying agent.

A food label may simply say “Organic.” To use this label, the product must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients (excluding added water and salt). Additionally, the product cannot contain sulfites; and may contain a maximum of 5% non-organically produced agricultural products. These products have to include an ingredient statement listing ingredients as organic and include the certifying agent, and can include the USDA organic seal, or a seal from the certifying agent.

Food manufacturers can claim that their products are “made with organic ingredients” if the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients. It cannot contain sulfites (except wine), and may contain up to 30% of nonorganic ingredients. These products cannot carry the USDA organic seal.

And finally, products can be labeled as containing “some organic ingredients” and identify the organic ingredients are “organic” in the ingredients statement. Again, water and salt cannot be included in organic materials and a producer may opt to label the percentage of organic ingredients which can be less than 70%. This product may also contain over 30% nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients.    

Information about Organic Standards is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at:

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I have been a health and wellness coach part-time since 2009. I was originally drawn to study at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in 2008 because I noticed trends of how food choices contributed to the state of a person’s health. Working in international policy – I became concerned that some of our worst eating habits in the U.S. were quickly being exported to other countries. From 1999-2005 I traveled quite a bit and I still remember the shock I felt when a Kenyan doctor in Nairobi told me that Kenyans really had no history of heart disease until the appearance of fast food restaurants in the capital. I knew that my advocacy work had to center around education so that people can make good food choices – both for themselves and for the people in their lives. I also believe that the more people know – the more public policy on the national and international levels can be impacted to reflect best practices.

In 2009 I graduated from IIN and began Hearty Nutrition, a part time practice – coaching people on changing their eating habits. I loved seeing people implement small changes that made a big difference in their lives. IIN really gave me a good survey of a lot of dietary theory out there – and gave me a bit of business training to get up and going. As time went on, I read more and found that there are a lot of confusing messages out there that people are trying to decipher. More and more, my clients were asking for detailed information about the chemical impact of food as well as vitamin and mineral deficiencies. I knew that I wanted to understand all these systems and that I simply had to learn more of the science of nutrition.

Most nutrition degrees follow the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) guidelines. I learned quite quickly through my international advocacy work that the USDA has a duel role – to educate on good nutrition and to promote U.S. agriculture (agribusiness) at home and abroad. The truth is that most of the time the USDA tends to do a much better job of promoting agribusiness than it does in educating the public on good nutrition. So – when I began looking for a way to learn the evidence base of my nutritional practice, I wanted to find a place that would give me a more integrated education that includes the USDA basics while exposing me to other ways of thinking. Tai Sophia Institute fit the bill, but at that time Tai only offered herbal medicine and acupuncture classes.

In 2010 I learned that the Tai Sophia Institute was about the launch a MS in Nutrition and Integrative Health program. Tai Sophia’s approach is anchored in a wellness-based philosophy, and at the same time it emphasizes the interrelated physiological, medicinal, psychosocial, cultural, and spiritual roles of food in our lives. I enrolled in the inaugural class in 2011 and once I graduate in August, 2013, I will pursue becoming a Certified Nutrition Specialists through the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CNBS) and will be licensed to practice nutrition in Maryland.

My course work has been around the biochemical, and physiological processes in the body involved in food digestion and absorption. I have also studied nutritional therapies to address disease states and nutritional needs of each stage of the life cycle. At the same time I have had the opportunity to strengthen my counseling skills through peer practice and a supervised student clinic that began February 3, 2013.

I’ve been asked what led me into health coaching because it seems so different from other work I have done. For me it is all a matter of following my heart.  In the mid 80’s and early 90’s my heart inspired me to accompany suffering people in war-torn countries; now that same heart has called me to respond to the unnecessary suffering caused by confusing health and nutrition information in a land of plenty.

Kathy in Chichicastenango, Guatemala 1993

In Guatemala from 91-96 I lived in a rural area among people who had little material wealth and little access to western medicines. What they did have was a deep understanding of the natural world. The elders of the communities I visited could brew a tea from the bark of a specific tree and help a diabetic regulate his blood sugar. Others ground flowers from another bush to treat skin rashes and lesions.

In 1995, my last year of working in Guatemala, I became involved in a medicinal plant project which began by gathering the elders from various communities to share their knowledge with one another and with community health promoters. Knowledge is power – affordable traditional remedies combined with education about simple, everyday things that people could do to prevent disease went a long way to serve people who no doctor, hospital or regimen of western medicine would ever reach.

I found myself fascinated by all I was learning; I often went to bed at night reading my copy of Where There is No Doctor. I was witnessing a very powerful transformation – I watched people take charge of their own health by incorporating new habits and practices into their lives. Nutrition played a vital role, but what seemed even more potent was people recognizing that they themselves had the power to change a lot of variables that could create a positive outcome for themselves and their family members’ health and well-being.

When I returned to the U.S. I found that people often feel very disconnected from knowledge of the natural world and that same kind of control over their health. While fantastic health care is available to those who can afford it, the health care system offers precious little education on disease prevention and easy, affordable actions to support one’s own healing. In Guatemala, while helping resource-poor communities with little access to western health care to expand their tools to stay healthy, I had no idea I was on the cutting edge of health care. Imagine what a different state the health of U.S. citizens would be in if people and communities had the simple knowledge on how to prevent disease. People might not miss as much work; they might avoid expensive hospital stays and young people wouldn’t be sentenced to formerly “adult diseases” like type II diabetes, gout and heart disease.

Nutrition is one of the easiest things to modify to bring about remarkable health benefits. I began noticing in my own diet how certain foods made me feel better than others. When I sought to deepen my knowledge in this area, I learned that most academic dietitian programs are closely tied to the USDA’s (U.S. Department of Agriculture) nutrition standards. When these standards were updated in December 2010 – they told us to “eat less,” without giving a clear picture of what to eat and what to avoid. The USDA has a dual role – it is responsible for promoting U.S. agriculture and setting U.S. nutrition guidelines. Unfortunately for us consumers, the USDA does a much better job of the former, leaving the public with lots of nutritional questions and contradictions.

In trying to find an independent source on nutrition knowledge, I found the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where I completed a year-long program in 2009 and became a certified health coach recognized by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners.

I now work with individuals investigating how they are nourished – not only by food but by the circumstances of their lives. As I watch people incorporate new practices and healthier choices, I am seeing some remarkable changes including, weight loss, more energy, better sleep and a surge of creativity around making life choices. Mostly I encourage people to follow their hearts in everything they do and to create a life full of the sustenance that truly makes their heart sing!

If you are looking for support in feeling better, truly following your bliss, or if you just want to cut down on medical expenses through making better everyday choices, you may want to talk with me about scheduling a health history consultation. And if you are thinking of a career change – talk to me to learn more about the Institute for Integrative Nutrition training program.

Health & Nutrition Counseling

An integrative approach to health and nutrition which includes Earth consciousness.


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