The food industry spends billions of dollars on advertising each year. They market through the obvious routes including television, Internet, radio and news publications; but they also use their advertising budget to determine the best way to package and label their food products. From the color on the packaging to the health claims, all of these seemingly small factors affect how we see a product and are therefore worth the time and expenses of additional thought and consideration by the food company. To this end, many of the food labels we see are nothing more than a way to sell their product.
“All natural”, “whole grain”, and “organic”—these labels all indicate a certain health appeal. They make us believe that what we are getting is good for us, or at least better for us than the options without such labels. But, these labels can be misleading and confusing.
Let’s discuss the most commonly seen food labels and what they really mean.
Food labels: What they really mean
Organic: In order for something to actually be certified organic, it must meet the standards of the USDA’s National Organic Program. “100% organic” means a product adheres to all the strict controls and that none of the ingredients used pesticides or herbicides, were genetically modified, contain petroleum or sewage based fertilizers, or have used radiation. “Organic” means the product can contain some nonorganic ingredients but must have at least 95 percent of organically produced ingredients. If a product is labeled as having been “made with organic ingredients,” it must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Any product that doesn’t meet these standards but contains organic ingredients can only list those specific ingredients as being organic and can only list that on the back of the package.
For more information on the term organic and what it really means, read here.
Whole grains: Any label about the grains included in a food can be misleading. A food labeled “multi-grain”, for example, is nothing more than a food made with more than one type of grain, both of which could be highly processed. “Made with whole grains” or “made with whole wheat” means simply that the food contains some whole, unrefined grains. It might contain less than 1 percent whole grains, but they are in there. If you are interested in finding foods that are healthy sources of whole grains, look for ones labeled “100% whole grains” or “100% whole wheat” as these labels indicate the greatest concentration of the unprocessed and non-nutritionally-depleted good stuff.
Free range: You’ve likely seen this label on your eggs or your chicken. The USDA says for these products to be labeled “free range”, they must have access to the outside. There are no further specifications. So, a small yard attached to a huge chicken house can qualify the chickens within to be labeled as free-range. Similarly, “cage free” simply means the chickens aren’t raised in cages, but there are no limits on crowding or any other practices. Organic eggs and chicken aren’t given hormones or antibiotics; they are fed organic feed without genetically modified materials. While they may be caged, they are usually cage-free. Your best bet if you want to have humanely raised chickens or eggs without worrying about what they’ve been fed is to find a local organic chicken farmer to support.
Local: There are no rules or standards by which a food company or grocery store’s produce manager must abide when labeling foods as “local”. They could be from a farmer down the road or from South America. When it comes to produce, check the sticker for the country of origin. In order to ensure you are getting truly local food, check your farmer’s market or roadside stand.
Natural: Perhaps the most misleading labels of all are the food labels that say “100% natural” or “all-natural”. What is natural? One could argue that petroleum products are natural. High fructose corn syrup, though linked to numerous health risks, is a “natural” product. Again, as with “local” foods, there are no rules in place on what is considered “natural”. The FDA does control meat and poultry where the “natural” tag is concerned, but that’s it. This is a marketing buzzword and is used by food makers to sell their products. Plain and simple. Your best bet is to completely ignore this label and look at the ingredients list to see what’s really being put in your food.
Be a conscientious shopper. Don’t fall for the marketing gimmicks, alluring taglines and nice packaging. Read your food labels and know what you’re putting in your body.