Glossary of terms

Definitions of few terms and acronyms that you might see tossed around on Ethicurean.com, leavened with a dash of opinion. We welcome suggestions for additions and/or refinements.

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100% Organic label: Can only contain organically produced ingredients. Products containing 100% organic ingredients can display the USDA Organic logo and/or the certifying agent’s logo.

BGH: Bovine Growth Hormone. See rBGH.

BSE: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. A fatal neurodegenerative cattle disease that causes the brain of the cow to waste away. Primarily thought to be caused by the feeding of the remains of ruminant animals (sheep, other cows) to still-living ruminant animals. Humans that eat meat from a cow infected with BSE may contract the related disease "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease" (see nvCJD). Source

Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacteria. Can be used as part of a natural pesticide, but is most well known as the gene that has been inserted into many genetically modified crops (especially corn) so that insects who ingest the protein from the crop will be killed. Source

CAFO: Confined Animal Feeding Operation. An agricultural system in which food animals are confined to a lot and fed a processed diet usually heavy in corn. They are not allowed to roam freely, and are susceptible to a number of diseases as a result. Source

Certified Humane Raised and Handled: A new (2003) consumer certification and labeling program administered by the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) foundation. Egg, dairy, meat or poultry products with this voluntary, fee-based label have been certified that their producers "allow animals to engage in their natural behaviors"; raise animals with sufficient space, shelter and gentle handling to limit stress; and provide ample fresh water and a healthy diet without added antibiotics or hormones. Growth hormones are prohibited, and feed must be free of antibiotics.

Certified Organic food: Food and food products that have been certified as organic by a recognized certification body. In general, food that has been certified as organic has not been grown with any synthetic chemical inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, or GMOs), is grown on land that has been free of such synthetic inputs for a specified period of time, and has been strictly segregated from non-certified products. Producers of certified organic foods and food products must also maintain detailed production and sales records and undergo periodic on-site inspections. Source

COOL: Country of Origin Labeling, a proposal in the 2002 Farm Bill that would require all beef, lamb, pork, fish, perishable agricultural commodities and peanuts to be labeled with where they come from. President Bush has delayed implementation of this provision until 2008.

cornfed: Great when it refers to strapping Midwestern teenagers, not so good when it refers to cows, whose stomachs have evolved to eat grass, not corn. Feeding CAFO cows corn makes them get fat faster but also upsets the pH balance in their stomach, causing them to become very gassy. Eventually the growing acid levels will eat away at the lining of the stomach walls, and some of the stomach bacteria will get into the bloodstream, where it lodges in the liver and causes abscesses, which farmers control with antibiotics, which get into the meat and the milk. Cornfed cattle have to be slaughtered at 14 to 16 months old.

Cornification of America: Phrase coined by Michael Pollan to indicate the pervasiveness of corn products in the national diet, including starches, thickeners, preservatives, and sweeteners. Corn has a molecular marker, C-4, that is retained in tissue, meaning it is theoretcially possible to measure how many corn products a person has consumed over his/her lifespan. More: Read Pollan's Smithsonian article "What's Eating America."

Cruelty free: General claim that implies no animal testing was done on the product or its ingredients. No government or official definition of this claim exists and no independent organization verifies it.

CSA: Community Supported Agriculture. An agricultural system by which consumers support a local farm by purchasing a "share" for a particular growing season in return for a regular portion, usually a box, of seasonal produce, dairy, etc. The financial risks are reduced for the farmer, since the consumer has paid money up front for the product. Source

Free Farmed: Program that certifies that animals raised for dairy, lamb, poultry and beef products are treated in a humane manner. Administered through the American Humane Association (AHA). More

Free range/free roaming: Defined by the USDA for poultry products but not for eggs or other products. Requires that outdoor access be made available for "an undetermined period each day" — meaning that the door to the coop or stall could be opened for five minutes a day and even if the animal never saw the door or ventured outside, it could still qualify as "free range."

G-M (back to top)

GMO: genetically modified organism. A plant or animal that has been genetically modified. The sale of GMOs for human consumption is legal in the U.S. and some other countries, though it is illegal in much of Europe. GMO food labeling is voluntary (and pretty much nonexistent). Source

grass-fed: Beef and dairy products from cattle that feed themselves primarily through forage (in a pasture) rather than in a feedlot (where they are usually given corn. So what?). Grass-fed beef is lower in fat in general and has higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids (same ones found in salmon). Learn more The USDA is considering a "grass fed" label that would require 99 percent of the animal's energy to have come from grass or forage, up from 80 percent, which would have allowed CAFO owners to feed them corn for the last three months of their short lives and still slap the "grass fed" label on the beef.

HFCS: high fructose corn syrup. A syrup made from corn, composed of 55% fructose and 45% sucrose. Used in many mass-produced foods due to its cheapness relative to sugar, thanks to price subsidies for corn provided by the U.S. government. Source

hormone free: No government or official definition for this term exists except on meat and poultry products as defined by the USDA, which by law prohibits the use of hormones in the raising of hogs or poultry in the United States. Pork and poultry products labeled "hormone free" simply mean they've followed the law. However, the USDA does allow the use of a number of hormones on beef.

IGF-1: Insulin-like Growth Factor-1, a naturally occurring hormone found in the milk of both cows and humans, which is important for both the regulation of normal physiology as well as a number of pathological states, including cancer. Cows given rBGH or rBST (synthetic hormones to increase milk supply) also produce more IGF-1 in their milk.

industrial agriculture: An agricultural system that relies heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a great deal of irrigation, major transportation systems, large-scale animal production systems, and machine technology. Source

mad-cow disease: See BSE.

Made With Organic Ingredients label: Made with at least 70% organic ingredients, three of which must be listed on the back of the package and again, the remaining 30% of the non-organic ingredients must approved on the National List. These products may display the certifier’s logo but not the USDA organic logo.

MAS: marker-assisted selection, a genomic technology that accelerates classical breeding. Scientists identify genes associated with traits such as yield, and then scan "crop relatives" for the presence of those genes and then cross-breed them, instead of splicing genes from an unrelated species into the genome. More: Read op-ed by Jeremy Rifkin on MAS.

mastitis: Inflammation of the udder caused by bacterial infection. Typically treated with antibiotics. Incidence increases when cows are forced to produce more milk, usually through synthetic hormones. See also rBGH.

N-Z (back to top)

natural foods: Ideally, food or food products that have been minimally processed and remain as close as possible to their whole, original state. However, no standard definition for this term exists except when applied to meat and poultry products. The USDA defines "natural" meat as free from artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients, but the claim does not have to be verified. 7-Up is advertised as "all-natural," even though it contains high-fructose corn syrup, which is not found in nature.

no-till farming: A way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through tilling. Tilling is removes weeds, mixes in fertilizers, shapes the soil into rows, and prepares for seeding, but it also can lead to soil compaction, loss of organic matter, disruption of soil microbes, arthropods, and earthworms, and soil erosion where topsoil is blown or washed away. In no-till farming the soil is left intact and crop residues are left in the fields. Source

NPK: Abbreviation for Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K), the three elements present in all commerical fertilizers sold thanks to Baron Justus von Liebig, a 19th-century German chemist, who discovered that plants rely on this trio of nutrients. The NPK approach to soil fertility is considered reductive by organic farmers, who believe that soil is part of an ecosystem we have yet to fully comprehend.

nvCJD: new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. A human disease that causes the brain to waste away. Caused by eating meat infected with BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). The disease presents itself at a much young age than standard Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (on average, at age 28). The disease is always fatal, typically within 18 months of diagnosis. A firm diagnosis of the disease cannot be made until after death, when the brain can be examined. Source

organic food: Food that is the product of organic farming. However, not all organic food is necessarily certified as such, though if it is sold under an "organic" label it must be certified. See also Certified Organic food.

organic certification: See Certified Organic food.

organic farming: A form of agriculture that relies on ecosystem management and attempts to reduce or eliminate external agricultural inputs, such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and bans the use of animal by-products, antibiotics and sewage sludge among other practices. Source

Organic label: 95% of the ingredients must be organically grown and the remaining 5% must come from non-organic ingredients that have been approved on the National List. These products can also display the USDA organic logo and/or the certifier’s logo.

partially hydrogenated vegetable oil: See Trans fats.

Pollan, Michael: Food detective, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, and the single biggest inspiration for this site. Michael Pollan's website

rBGH: recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. Also called recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST). A genetically engineered hormone that is injected into dairy cows to increase their milk production. Cows that have been given rBGH have higher instances of mastitis, an infection of the udder, and require more antibiotics.

rBST: recombinant Bovine Somatotropin. See rBGH.

Salmonella: A rod-shaped type of bacteria that causes food poisoning and is commonly found in meats, poultry, eggs, and unpasteurized cheese and milk.

ruminants: Animals that have four-chambered stomachs, even-toed hooves, and chew their cud. Ruminant animals include cows, sheep, goats, antelope, deer, and camels.

trans fats: Processed fats (typically vegetable oil) that have been combined with hydrogen in order to make them solid and give them a longer shelf life. Partial hydrogenation raises the melting point of fat, producing a semi-solid material, which is much more desirable than liquid oils for use in baking. Because trans fats not only increase levels of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol), but also lower levels of HDL (the "good" cholesterol), the National Academy of Sciences has stated that there is no safe level of trans fat consumption. Source

USDA: U.S. Department of Agriculture