Deciphering food labels for healthier eats!
Whether you’re simply feeding yourself or searching out the healthiest foods for your family, all the buzzwords surrounding food these days can make grocery shopping nothing short of a challenge. Many of the health claims slapped on the front of food packaging are just part of a widespread marketing strategy to entice you to choose one particular grocery item over another. Other claims, however, are either regulated by the FDA or certified by third-party agencies. But telling the difference between the hype and the real deal can often be frustrating. In fact, nearly 59 percent of consumers have a hard time understanding nutrition labels, according to a Nielsen survey.
What to do? Here is a baker’s dozen of the most common—and most misleading—claims that manufacturers use on food, plus tips on how to make smarter supermarket choices.
Artisanal: From bread to cheese, artisanal foods are starting to pop up in a growing number of supermarkets. Yet, as hip as it may sound, the term “artisanal” actually means food that is produced in small batches using traditional, often handmade, methods. Unless you’re shopping at a small market that sources its artisanal foods from local chefs or bakers, anything sporting this label in supermarkets is likely less than authentic.
Cage-Free or Free-Range: If these labels spark visions of happy chickens gleefully pecking for bugs and worms, that may not be the reality. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that all “free-range” animals have access to the outdoors, there are no requirements for the amount, duration, or quality of this access. “Cage-free,” on the other hand, means that the birds aren’t confined to cages, but they aren’t required to have access to the outdoors. Try pasture-raised meat or eggs if you’re concerned about chicken welfare.
Fair Trade: A product sporting a Fairtrade seal means that one or more of its ingredients were produced in compliance with the Fairtrade International standards. The seal is backed by strong standards that are verified in an effort to reduce global poverty, minimize environmental damage, and promote sustainability.
Gluten-free: Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, gluten can wreak havoc on their health. Just be aware that gluten-free products aren’t low calorie and they may contain less fiber than their whole wheat counterparts. Check the nutritional label.
GMO-Free: The USDA proposed new guidelines for labeling foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, starting in 2020. Until then, look for certification by the Non-GMO Project, a rigorous third-party verification program.
Light: A product labeled “light” could simply be referring to the flavor rather than the ingredients. To legally be considered a light product, the fat content has to be 50 percent less than the amount found in comparable products. Check the nutritional label on the back of the product if this is a concern.
Local: This term is now regulated. A food designated as ”local” or “locally grown” can’t legally have travelled more than 400 miles from its origin. While 400 miles might not sound terribly local, consider that most food travels approximately 3,500 miles to your local grocery store.
Natural: The FDA doesn’t define what the term “natural” means—however, it is generally assumed that a so-labeled food is free of synthetic colors or artificial flavors. The problem is, a “natural” food can also contain preservatives, excess sodium, or high fructose corn syrup. Take a look at the ingredients to find out just how natural a particular food is.
Organic: If a product has a USDA label that says “organic,” at least 95 percent of the ingredients must have been grown or processed without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. A label that says “made with organic ingredients” must have a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients to meet the standard.
Pasture-Raised: A “pasture-raised” claim on meat, poultry, dairy, or egg labels means that the animals were raised for at least some portion of their lives on a pasture or with access to a pasture, not continually confined indoors. Sadly, most commercial dairy cows, pigs, and chickens live their entire lives confined indoors. Cattle are routinely crowded into outdoor feedlots. Most animals raised for meat are also fed high-grain feed. At this time, there is no legal definition for pasture-raised and no requirement for verification.
Probiotics: Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi are well-known as dietary sources of probiotics. But probiotics are now popping up in snack foods like cookies and chips. Since live probiotic cultures are destroyed at around 115° F, you might want to think twice about trying to get your daily dose of beneficial bacteria from a bag of chips.
Superfoods: Just like the word “natural,” the term “superfoods” has no legal definition. While a food might contain a bit of kale or a handful of blueberries, check the ingredients to see what else you’re getting. Often these products are high in sugar, salt, or preservatives. Better to get your nutrient-dense “superfoods” from real fruits and vegetables.
Zero Trans Fat: Studies clearly show that no amount of trans fat is good for you. But labels boasting “zero” trans fat can legally contain 0.5 grams trans fat per serving. Check ingredient labels for the words “hydrogenated” oils or shortening, which indicates that the product contains stealth trans fats not listed on the nutrition panel.
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