Product Standards

our product standards

Our product standards are not a simple list of do’s and don’ts.  They have nuance.  They go into some depth.  They were originally written for our purchasing team, and may be too lengthy and complicated for a consumer website.  But they speak to who we are, and what we stand for.  Here ya go. 


Where We’re At | Why We’re Here

When Debra’s Natural Gourmet first opened in 1989, our product standards were very simple: no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives; no refined flour, no refined sugar, no coffee, no chocolate, ever.  Anything else, we could carry.

It isn’t that clear-cut anymore.

First of all, we now carry supplements, bodycare, and household care products, which  opens the door to all sort of new and multisyllabic ingredients.  Even when it comes to food, there’s so much more variety now, so many more issues to consider…

Many of the old bans still hold, of course.  We still don’t allow artificial flavors or colors.  We still don’t allow synthetic sweeteners.

But we now grudgingly accept a few of the ingredients we used to completely forbid.  So while we still try to avoid white flour and sugar, we no longer take an entirely puritanical approach to it.  We also sell coffee.  Surprisingly, we’ve actually come to embrace one of the things we used to ban – chocolate.

Meanwhile, we’ve found new things to care about, like GMOs, food miles, carbon footprints, and fair trade.   There’s so much more out there to pick from, we can afford to be picky.

So yes, we still have standards, strong ones.  They’re just a little more nuanced than they used to be.  This paper should clarify them.  It will first cover Issues that are important to us in product selection, then look at Ingredients.

While this paper will provide guidance, it is not a comprehensive list of every ingredient out there.  Buyers, if you see something that you don’t recognize, don’t order the product until you know what it is!  Do not trust the distributor or the manufacturer to have exercised due diligence for you.  Here, our coworkers (especially managers) are our best guides.  Feel free to consult our reference books.  Two valuable online resources are the Natural Products Association’s list of “natural” ingredients and additives at http://www.npainfo.org; and the National Institutes of Health’s toxicology database, at http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/ The NPA website is generally better with food ingredients; the NIH database has more to offer with additives in bodycare or household products.

ISSUES

When a customer buys a product from us, it doesn’t just impact the customer and their family.  The purchase “casts a vote” that impacts the ecology, economy, and society – for sustainable or destructive agriculture, a healthy or toxic environment, empowering or abusive working conditions, etc., etc. 

So these issues aren’t just about us and our customers. 

If we turn down a product because it doesn’t meet our standards, we should let the manufacturer know why, and encourage them to improve.  We may be a “small independent,” but we still take a leadership role here.      

Natural vs. Artificial

applesDebra’s Natural Gourmet is a natural products store.  We only carry things which are natural, which is to say not artificial[1].

Unfortunately, these simple terms are open to interpretation.  So let’s take a closer look at four ingredients, and whether or not they’re “natural” to us.

  1. Citric acid is naturally found in citrus fruits. It is a useful preservative, much like lemon juice, for everything from hummus to bean sprouts to bodycare products. However, the citric acid on an ingredients list isn’t extracted from fruits, but produced through a (synthetic) laboratory process.  So is it natural?
  2. Or sodium lauryl sulfate: SLS is a common ingredient in bodycare products. It does not normally exist in nature, but can be produced in a lab from coconut oil. In fact the label will often refer to SLS as “vegetable-derived surfactant.”  Natural?
  3. Quorn is a brand of meat substitute made from single-celled fungi grown in giant vats that look like something out of a science fiction movie. Natural?
  4. Finally, lecithin granules: a substance found naturally in soybeans, but extracted using a solvent which is not natural and not healthy.

For us, “natural” means that the substance or product comes from nature, and is modified or processed in traditional or natural ways – for example mechanically, with temperature, filtration, enzymatic predigestion, or using natural solvents such as alcohol or water.  Either that, or it’s a simple substance found in nature, with no known toxicity, reproduced in a lab without the use of toxic ingredients or processes.  So:

  1. The citric acid is natural to us, because it’s found in nature, and made from corn using only natural processes.
  2. The SLS is not natural. No matter what it’s made from, what it’s made into is not.
  3. The meat substitute is natural because the fungi (yeasts and/or mushrooms) are natural living organisms, and in the Quorn, they’re fed on only natural ingredients.
  4. The lecithin is tricky. It’s a natural substance, extracted from a natural food, but using un-natural methods. It’s borderline.  We carry it because it’s healthy, and it’s in just about everything, and because the solvents should be completely absent from the finished product. Still, the production method is somewhat troubling.  For now, we’re keep our eyes open for a better alternative.

The examples could go on and on, but you get the gist.  For more information, see the Natural Products Association website: http://www.npainfo.org

Organic

While “natural” is largely about what a product’s ingredients are, organic is mostly about how those ingredients are grown.  It is, at its core, an agricultural term.

a farmUnlike with “natural,” which is open to interpretation, there are strict regulations governing the word “organic.”  To call a food “organic” it must be grown without artificial chemicals (pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, fertilizers), and produced and handled in an otherwise “natural” way.  For example, herbs cannot be irradiated, grains cannot be fumigated.  Animals raised according to organic standards must be fed only organically-grown feed, cannot be given artificial hormones, and must be treated according to minimum standards of animal welfare.  Organic food must never be knowingly contaminated with GMOs (see below), although the law does allow for accidental contamination.

Of course it’s not nearly as simple as that, and the actual regulations go on for pages.  Products that are labeled “100% organic” must be made from all organic ingredients.  Simply “organic” must be at least 95% organic.  “Made with organic” must be at least 70% organic.  Non-agricultural (but still “natural” ingredients) such as salt, citric acid, and water are neither organic nor non-organic, and are not counted towards the percent-total[2].

All other things being equal, we will always prioritize organic products over non-organic ones.  They are healthier for us, and for the environment.  That being said, USDA organic is a minimum standard.  It is a guarantee that artificial toxins have not been used in farming or processing, but not that the farming or processing was conducted particularly well, or that the product itself is good for you.

So we are especially interested in promoting products that adhere to higher standards than “organic.”  Farmers who practice soil enrichment, or integrated pest management, or engage in biodynamic practices, are especially attractive.  True sustainability – conserving energy and resources, and keeping toxins out of the environment – is our real goal.

As a general rule, if an organic commodity is only 25% more expensive than a conventionally grown one, we will just stock the organic; if the price difference is larger, we may choose to stock both.  Some ingredients that are otherwise less-than-healthy may be allowed only if they are organic.  See below.

Finally, some crops tend to be more heavily and harmfully sprayed than others.  Here, organics take on an extra level of importance.  At the very least, we need to pay special attention to underground crops (carrots, potatoes), wet crops (rice), and thin-skinned, delicate crops (raspberries, spinach).  Also, crops from countries with laxer agricultural standards than the U.S., especially China.  Finally, cotton: since cotton isn’t grown for food, the regulations governing pesticides are looser here, allowing some really nasty chemicals.

Organic vs. Natural – which is better?  This debate could go on endlessly…  In short, our philosophy (generally speaking) is that natural is more important than organic.  Of course there are many exceptions to that rule, many areas where many nuances come into play – plenty of shades of gray.

When it comes right down to it, though, we’d rather eat a bowl of non-organic lentil soup with onions and carrots, and a glass of fresh water; than an organically grown Twinkie, washed down with organic soda pop (made with organic sugar).   

GMOs

A protest against GMOs

Genetically modified organisms are a global concern.

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.”  While farmers have been selecting for desirable genes through selective breeding for millennia, technology now allows us to insert entirely foreign genes into organisms.  For example, a bacterial gene that produces an insect-killing toxin may be inserted into corn, to provide greater pest resistance (also, upsetting the food chain and killing monarch butterflies).  Or a gene inserted into soybeans allowing them to detoxify otherwise poisonous weed-killers, so a field can be blanketed with herbicide, and only the soybean survives – wasteland agriculture.

(These, incidentally, are real examples: Bt corn, and Roundup™-Ready soy).

Obviously, we want to avoid these.  But what about seemingly benign genetic modifications?  For example, a carrot gene inserted into rice to increase the beta-carotene content.  Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A.  Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of infant blindness in developing nations…  It sounds pretty wonderful.

In the end, however, we are not living in a developing nation.  And here, in the United States, we are concerned about all GM crops.  We are concerned that by introducing a hybrid organism into the wild we may upset ecosystems and create unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences.  GMO crops may reproduce, or they may cross with and contaminate conventional crops.  The genie is out of the bottle, and pollution has a life of its own.  Once made, the mistake cannot be un-made.

We appreciate it when companies declare that their products are non-GMO or GMO-free.  We especially appreciate it when a company goes the extra mile, and has their product tested by the Non-GMO Project, or another independent certifying agency.  Unfortunately, many small companies cannot afford certification right now[3].  Organic certification is a start: it precludes knowingly using GM crops (although accidental GM contamination is possible…)

In commodities where there is a GMO-free option, that is all we will stock.  Otherwise, non-GMO isn’t a dealbreaker for us, but it is a major factor to weigh.

Local

We prioritize local products over ones that are grown or produced distantly.

Ray and Co.

Applefield Farm is one of our favorite local producers. Looks like it’s fun to work at, too.

First, there’s the issue of “food miles” – the distance travelled by the product from where it’s made to us, and just as importantly the distance travelled by the ingredients from the farm to where the product is made.  The fuel used depletes our natural resources, and hurts the environment.  Fuel use is amplified with products that require energy-intensive transport.  Raspberries, for example, that have to be jetted in under refrigeration, vs. grains which can take the slow boat at room temperature.

 

Local products are more likely to be fresh.

Local is also important because it lets us get to know our growers and producers better.  It fosters a sense of community and accountability that may not be tangible, but is still of very real importance.

We also try to do business with people who do business with us, in other words, buy from our customers.  (Having said that, friendship is no reason to bring in a bad product!)

Fair Trade

It’s possible that the luxurious chocolate you’re enjoying was made by workers halfway around the world, sweating and slaving for pennies a day.  The idea behind fair trade is that, if the chocolate bar is worth something to us, we have a moral responsibility to transfer some of that value to the people who produce it.  Not just to the plantation owners and factory owners, the distributors and copackers and marketing geniuses; but the actual poor folks, the farmers and manual laborers.  We’re leveraging our economic clout, fighting for economic justice.

small farmers

Photo courtesy: Equal Exchange.

Yes, it costs us more.  But the difference for us might be an extra 10 or 25 cents.  The difference on the other end may be running water, medication, or an education.

Third-party fair trade certification is good, but it’s an imperfect system.  Standards vary, and certifiers find it easier to work with large plantations vs. small, independent growers and cooperatives.  So, many of our socially conscious suppliers are now opting out of certification, and using language about “direct trade,” or “international partnerships.”

We should talk to our suppliers about the ingredients they source (especially from poorer regions), and ask tough questions about their relationships with growers and workers.  This is especially important for ingredients that come from regions with extensive worker oppression and even slavery.  For example coffee and chocolate, especially from Africa.

Packaging

We love pretty packaging!  But we also love packages that are recycled or recyclable, made with renewable resources, and that are otherwise not excessive[4].  (This is a big reason why we love bulk).

There are also issues regarding toxins in packaging that can leach into the food itself, especially into liquids.  We prohibit the use of artificial preservatives in food packaging.  We try to avoid aluminum where we can.  Of especial concern is a compound called bisphenol-A (BPA), used to protect can metal from acidity.  While we strongly prioritize BPA-free packaging we can not currently exclude it from the store since there are not enough BPA-free options yet.  (And some of the other options may be even worse…)  As better options become available, we are committed to moving towards them.

Labeling

We do not like products that mislead customers with their labeling or marketing.  Rarely is anything an outright lie – and if it is, it is our responsibility to contact the company, and, if necessary, notify the Federal Trade Commission – but there are plenty of companies that try to mislead customers to sell their product.  This is an especial issue in the supplement and bodycare departments, where products and companies will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Low Fat, Low Sodium, Low Calorie; High Fiber, High ORAC; Raw, Allergen-Free, Heirloom, Vegetarian, Vegan, Vitamin-Enhanced, Probiotic, and Fermented

There are a million-and-one ways a product can be “better” (or claim to be “better”).  Generally, we try to find products with as many perceived “plusses” as we can.  That being said, nutritional “bells and whistles” are never more important than something just being Good Food.

We prioritize “plusses” that are more “traditional.”  Basically, if your great-grandma would recognize it as quality food (i.e. because it’s fermented like they did in the old country, or it has blueberries like from when she was a girl), it’s better than something newfangled, i.e. a protein bar with added vitamins, or peanut butter with micro-encapsulated fish oil.

Ownership

Dean Cycon from Dean's Beans

Dean Cycon from Dean’s Beans in Western MA.  Winner of the Oslo Business for Peace award in 2013

We prefer to do business with companies that stand for the same things we do.  Unfortunately, this is getting harder and harder.  Many old friends have been bought out over the years, by larger and larger firms that do not necessarily share our values.  Meanwhile, more and more entrepreneurs are buying in to the “lucrative natural products industry,” devoted less to the old ideals, and more to making a buck.

This is especially tough to navigate, since many companies that are run by good people are owned (at a distance) by people who don’t seem to care.

Still corporate ownership is important to us, and all other things being equal, we will always prioritize a company that talks the talk, and walks the walk; that donates to the right causes; that is owned by people who are in it for the right reasons; etc., etc.

How can we tell?  We can ask.  Do you use wind power?  How do you source your chocolate?  How was the company founded?  Who owns it now?

It’s a good indicator when all of the company’s products would meet our standards – not just the handpicked few that are being marketed to us.

INGREDIENTS

Grains/Flours

We strongly prioritize whole grains over refined “white” grains with the bran and germ removed.  Refining a grain removes most of its fiber, and B- and E-complex vitamins, trace minerals, and healthy fats, leaving behind little more than empty calories.

a variety of riceThat being said, there is nothing toxic in a refined grain, just imbalanced.  So refined grains are acceptable when they are minor ingredients in otherwise clean products, with other ingredients to provide that balance.

Foods that are made predominantly of refined grains are acceptable only if there are mitigating factors, organic being a big one.  (And please be aware that a product may be labeled “whole wheat,” and still only contain some whole wheat.  A product simply labeled “wheat” may be entirely refined).

We also love to see products made from sprouted grains, as sprouting increases their nutrient potential.  This is true with beans, nuts, and seeds as well.

Sadly, as this is being written (2012), the selection of whole-grain offerings in the gluten-free category are few and far between.  For now, because gluten is a serious health risk for some of our customers, we are willing to compromise our standards here for the greater good.

Sweeteners

The issue here is similar to the issue with grain and flours, only more so.  Sweeteners, even “good” sweeteners, are inherently unbalancing when consumed in excess.  So we try to avoid foods that are predominantly sweetener unless those foods are actually “sweets,” intended as occasional treats, in small amounts.  A lollipop could be predominantly sweetener; a breakfast cereal could not be.honey varieties in bottles

White sugar is acceptable if it is organic and in a product where we cannot find a better alternative.  It is acceptable non-organically only rarely, and only then in chewable supplements, allergen-sensitive products, or as an extremely minor ingredient (i.e. a pinch of sugar for proofing yeast in bread; the 12th ingredient down in veggie burger).

Glucose, dextrose, levulose, sucrose, fructose, and high fructose corn syrup are all code words for highly refined sugars.

“Cane (as in sugarcane) juice” is a semi-refined sweetener that is okay, but not great.  The same can be said for agave nectar.

Real, unrefined honey is a desirable sweetener for its rich phytonutrient content.  However, much of the honey on the market is highly refined, and possibly cut with sugar water.  Honey simply labeled as “pure” is often the refined product.  While acceptable, these inferior honeys are not necessarily desirable.

Sweeteners that are desirable include sugars from maple and coconut palm trees; dates, yacon, Jerusalem artichoke, and concentrated fruit juices.  Sugar alcohols (xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol) are also desirable, as are non-caloric herbal sweeteners such as stevia, lo han, and licorice.

Artificial sweeteners are never acceptable.  These include acelsulfame-K, sucralose, saccharine, and aspartame.

Dairy, Poultry, Meat, Fish, and Eggs: Where the Standards Apply

As we talk about standards applied to animal products, it’s important to bear in mind that we do not necessarily apply these standards to minor ingredients in prepared foods.  For example, while we insist on eggs being sold as eggs being from free-range chickens, we do not insist on it if they’re an ingredient in a cake or a frozen lasagna.  A sausage, however, or a yogurt, would have to adhere to the standards, as they are primarily the animal product in question.

Dairy, Poultry, Meat, Fish, and Eggs: Animal Welfare

free range chickensAnimal welfare is a concern, both for humanitarian reasons (pun acknowledged), and for purely selfish reasons: an animal that lives a healthy, natural lifestyle creates healthier, often better-tasting, food for us.  On a larger level, an animal living in harmony with its animal nature is living in accordance with the laws of ecology and planetary wellness.  This isn’t just philosophy or poetry, but a concept with clear ecological underpinnings.

Poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy must come from animals that are allowed to range at least somewhat freely.  If anything, we put an even greater emphasis on animal welfare when it comes to mammals vs. poultry.  We prefer wild fish from sustainable fisheries, to those that are farm-raised or trawled for.

We very strongly prioritize animals that forage for their own food (“grass-fed” or “pastured”) as this not only makes the animal healthier, but guarantees them significant freedom to roam.  If animals do not forage for their own food, we prefer ones that are given feed which is somehow “special.”  If that isn’t possible, we at least hope that they’re fed “normal” food for the type of animal – grass and hay for a cow, for example, instead of corn and soy.

Exactly where we draw the line for “sustainable,” “humane,” and “free-ranging” is open to interpretation.  Generally, we aim as high as we can.

The Cornucopia Institute publishes a scorecards for organic producers of eggs, poultry, dairy, and beef.  These are truly excellent, trustworthy resources, and they go into a great deal of depth.  See www.Cornucopia.org.

Dairy

While vegans and the lactose-intolerant avoid dairy products, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about them.  So we do not avoid dairy, but still try to provide a wide variety of dairy-free “milks,” “cheeses,” and frozen desserts for our customers.

goats eating

Photo of “Young Rose” courtesy of Tricia Smith / Ruggles Hill Creamery.

We do not stock any dairy products that contain milk from cows given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), due to concerns that it may raise cancer risk both in the cows, and in people consuming the dairy.  rBGH is not found in anything from Europe (where it is banned), anything organic, or anything from a non-cow mammal.

We do not stock any dairy from animals that are given antibiotics en masse as part of their daily feed.  Antibiotics are only given this way to offset the tendency towards epidemic infections in livestock confined in ridiculously tight, inhumane, and filthy conditions.  (We have no problem, however, with animals that are given antibiotics, individually, when they are sick).

We strongly prioritize cheeses that use vegetarian rennet.  Traditional rennet, used to harden milk into cheese, is produced from the lining of a (dead) animal’s stomach.  While animal rennet falls within our ingredients standards (we do carry meat, after all), it offers no substantial benefit, and makes a product that would otherwise be acceptable to vegetarians, unacceptable.

All other things being equal, we prefer hard cheeses made from raw vs. pasteurized milk, due to a belief that heating destroys some of the health benefits that naturally exist in milk.  Unfortunately, it is currently illegal in Massachusetts to sell raw soft cheeses or liquid dairy in a retail store.

Poultry and Eggs

We only stock free-range poultry.  However, the term “free-range” can mean anything from “truly free-ranging, pecking for seeds and worms in the great outdoors!” to “packed as tight as sardines in a concrete chicken house, with some limited access to a tiny fenced-in alcove in the light.”  So when our suppliers use a term like “free-range,” we need to ask them about the specifics.

We only stock poultry and eggs from birds that are given vegetarian feed (although small amounts of bone meal may be added).

Meat

While there are many that choose to avoid meat products, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about them.  We do, however, try to provide a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes.

We apply the same standards to meat animals as we do to milk animals.

Common preservative in deli meat that are never allowed include nitrites and nitrates.

Fats and Oils

Despite decades of nutritional propaganda, we strongly believe that there is nothing inherently unhealthy about fats and oils.  The noveau-orthodox notion that saturated fats are bad for us is one we do not agree with either.  Tropical oils and animals fats are acceptable and sometimes even desirable, especially for products that are exposed to high heat or have extended shelf lives.

culinary oilsWe prefer oils that are cold-pressed and unrefined, but do not insist on them.

In products, we prefer oils that provide some sort of health benefit.  That list includes, but is not limited to: oils derived from pumpkins seeds, sesame, palm fruit, coconut, flax, hemp, avocado, walnuts, chia, cocoa, and olives, as well as grass-fed clarified butter (ghee).

Generally speaking seed, nut, and fruit oils are preferable to bean and grain oils.

Fractionation of oils is acceptable, as this is simply a natural way of separating oils into fractions.  For example, a fraction that is harder or softer at room temperature.

Partially-hydrogenated oils are fats which are artificially modified to harden them.  This creates trans­-fats, which are linked to heart disease and cancer.  They are not allowed under any circumstances.

Cottonseed oil is only allowed under unusual circumstances.

Nuts, Seeds, and Beans

All are acceptable.

We see added value in nuts and seeds that are stored refrigerated.

We see added value in all products, nuts especially, that are pre-soaked or sprouted.

Produce

When we buy produce from strangers (i.e. through a distributor, or from farmers we do not personally know), it all must be organic.  When buying from local farmers that we know and trust (or who are vouched for by other farmers that we know and trust), we may accept produce that is not certified organic, as long as the farmer never uses artificial pesticides, and follows most other organic practices.

On the rare occasions when we may choose to break these rules (i.e. “low-spray” local peaches for a few weeks, or conventional cranberries because they’re all we can get, and it’s two days before Thanksgiving), the fact has to be clearly labeled.


[1] Or at least in foods.  We do allow some artificial ingredients in household and cosmetic products, although only when non-toxic, and only when they are a “cleaner” alternative to a mainstream product.

We also allow certain artificial ingredients in supplements if they are benign, unavoidable, and serve a clear and necessary purpose.  As things stand, there are only three ingredients that are okay: sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate as preservatives in liquid supplements (more than single-serve); and enteric coatings on capsule or tablet shells.

[2] Unscrupulous manufacturers may use this to “cheat the math.”  For example, if a product were made from 10% organic herbs, 10% artificial chemicals, and 80% water, it would be 50% organic, since the water is neutral, and everything else is 50-50.  But if you steep the herbs in the water first, you could call the herb-water mixture an “organic herbal infusion,” then when you mixed everything together, you’d have something that’s 90% organic, and only 10% non-organic.  A little sketchy, perhaps, but still, unfortunately, legal.

[3] However, we may ask a small manufacturer if their ingredient suppliers have GMO-free certification.  So even if an entire product isn’t certified GMO-free, the obvious culprits – corn and soy ingredients, which they would have bought elsewhere – should be.

[4] Here, “packaging” means more than just bottles and bags, but also the shipping materials that get the bottles and bags to us.  So while a glass bottle may seem more desirable than plastic, that needs to be weighed against any extra Styrofoam needed to get it to us intact.