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National Nutrition Month Series: Food Quality 101

Conventional or organic? Free-range or cage-free? Fresh, frozen, or canned? So many questions pop up when it comes to food quality. How can we get the most for our dollar while also getting the most nutritious foods? Let’s cover the basics.

What is Organic?

For animal by-products (meat, poultry, dairy), organic means that the animal was fed only certified organic feed (corn and soybean). For produce (fruits, vegetables, herbs, ext.) organic means that the produce was grown and processed without the use of any conventional or synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, artificial flavors, artificial colors, or preservatives.

Conventional products are grown with these types of methods, or are GMO (geneticly modified organism).


Meats are graded according to the amount of marbled fat. Good and select contain the least amount of fat, choice is slightly higher, and then prime is the highest. What type of meat you purchase depends mostly on the type of cooking method you will be using. For instance, leaner cuts are better for moist cooking methods (sautéing, soups, stews) whereas fattier meats are better for dry heat methods (roasting, baking, broiling). 

In a general sense, we should try to chose lower fat (leaner cuts) more often. 


Poultry is graded based on the plumpness of the meat, the layer of fat underneath and skin, and bone structure. Grade A is the highest, and the retail-level for most markets. B is slightly lower but still safe for human consumption. Whereas Grade C is the lowest and will require further processing into a ground product before sale. In the grocery market setting, you will likely only see Grade A products, with the occasional Grade B for ground products.

Here are some definitions for our poultry products:
Free-Range – must have access to the outdoors
Cage-Free – open indoor spaces as opposed to ‘battery cages’
Pasture-Raised – kept outdoors for most of the year, brought indoors at night
Hormone and Antibiotic Free – means what you think it means, the meat or poultry has not been treated with either.
Naturally raised – does not contain any added ingredients, colorants, or synthetic changes – has nothing to do with the treatment of the animal or it’s environment


Eggs have similar grades to poultry – AA, A, and B. AA is the freshest and highest quality, A is slightly below that, and grade B are typically used for liquid egg products depending on the number of defects.

Here are some definitions for our egg products:
Free-Range – must have access to the outdoors
Cage-Free – open indoor spaces as opposed to ‘battery cages’
Pasture-Raised – kept outdoors for most of the year, brought indoors at night
Local – within 400 miles from the processing facility OR within the same state. Not as close as you may think!

Fresh vs Frozen

In a perfect world, we would have access to fresh produce all year round, and would not have any issues storing said produce, so we would never have to worry about wasting food. Obviously, we don’t live in this perfect world!

Fresh produce will have the greatest ‘nutrient-density’ (although, it does depend how far the food had to travel). Ideally, we would chose fresh produce the most often.
Frozen produce is still a good option! And often times, adds a convenience factor that many can’t pass up. As long as we are choosing frozen products with no major additives (think sauces, flavors, ext.), we will get a very similar nutrient profile. I love to keep frozen veggies in my freezer for ’emergencies’, as well as a mix of veggies and fruit for smoothies!

The Deal with Cans

My biggest concern with canned produce is the sodium content! Things like canned veggies and beans are typically very high in salt, as well as other preservatives. This does not mean that canned products are off-limits. Shop for lower-sodium alternatives (low-salt, low-sodium, salt-free, no added salt, ext.) and always rinse!
When it comes to fruits, canned options may have added sugars. Avoid or limit products that are “in-syrup”, and focus on products “in their own juice”

The "Golden Rule"

Knowing all of these terms, I’m sure your next question is “so what do I buy?”. As a dietitian, I hear this question a lot. In a perfect environment, organic and local is the most ideal when it comes to nutrient density. Not to mention, shopping locally (like at your local farmers’ market), helps support your community.

That being said, this does not mean that you can not or should not purchase conventionally grown, GMO, or non-local products. Many fruits and vegetables would not be available to us year-round without these growing methods! On top of that, if the organic or local options are not in stock or are not appealing to your personal standards, you can opt for the conventional option without feeling guilt. Ideally, include a wide variety of produce in your diet, and find ways to include local options as often as you can!

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