Reading time: 5 minutes
Takeaway: Despite government requirements, understanding food labels takes a bit of knowledge and skill. You can find some explanations and resources in this post.
I ❤ Food
I love looking at food. Grocery stores, markets, farm stands, food stalls, quick shops – they’re all an endless source of fascination for me. I like the variety, the colors, the mystery of fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen before. And the engineering and chemistry of the latest novelty foods awe me ever since one of my professors in college told us about his experience as part of the team that improved “Poppin’ Fresh Dough”.
What IS this? Becoming a Label Guru
The labels on prepared foods are part of the draw for me too, but, I often find myself rolling my eyes at claims like “natural”, “gluten free”, and “cage free”. What do these things mean? Does it mean the product is better for me than the one next to it without such a claim? Maybe…but it often requires some reading and perhaps some homework to discern the truth. This post has a bit of the background of food labelling in the United States, an overview of some of the more common labels (and commonly confusing) as well as links to resources to find more information.
Figure 1, Labelled for reuse and copied directly from: https://somanyactivities.wikispaces.com/The+Jungle-+Upton+Sinclair
A Bit of Background
Food regulations requiring disclosure of the quality and kinds of ingredients go back at least to Roman times, but, generally, most of our ancestors produced their own food or lived next to the people producing their food rendering food labelling largely unnecessary. If you can remember back to your high school classes, you might recall that the 1906 release of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle ignited public support for inspection of meat-packing plants and better labelling of ingredients through the Food and Drugs Act. Since then, labelling requirements have evolved to not only as a means to disclose ingredients, but also as a way to communicate their nutritional value.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “requires most foods to bear nutrition labeling and requires food labels that bear nutrient content claims and certain health messages to comply with specific requirements.” What this means is that most food sold in the US needs a label that tells you what’s in the food and its nutrients (like calories, fat, etc.). So there are three basic parts to a label: 1) What-Who-Where-Quantity; 2) What’s in it; 3) Claims. If you’d like to learn more about the first two parts, some great sites to visit are the FDA Food Labeling Guide, FDAs How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label page, and a similar but very simple page from the American Heart Association. I want to focus on the last area, claims, as it is the most misleading and misunderstood.
There are more label claims than there are choices of peanut butter in a given grocery store (seriously, why are there so many?); however, I want to focus on the ones that I think are the most common, and the most commonly misleading. These are the ones that make me angry at manufacturers and their marketing teams.
|Claim||Regulated Term||What it Means|
|Natural, All Natural, 100% Natural||No||In general, foods with a “natural” claim do not contain “artificial” ingredients. These foods are not necessarily healthier (or even healthy) for you.|
|Natural Flavors||Yes||Natural flavors in foods come from a naturally occurring source, whether it’s a plant, bark or beaver anus (albeit unlikely). Artificial flavors are typically chemically identical, but they have been produced in a lab.|
|Fresh||Yes||The food hasn’t been frozen. It may have: a wax or other coating; an application of pesticides after harvest; a mild bleach or acid wash; or an ionizing radiation treatment.|
|GMO free||Somewhat||Requiring labels on genetically engineered foods is voluntary in most part of the Unites States. While FDA doesn’t require or provide guidance for use of this terminology, it does require truth in labelling. Therefore a product labelled “GMO free” that contained genetically engineered foods would be considered misuse of the term.|
|No hormones/steroids||Yes||For beef, USDA allows this term but only if there is sufficient documentation. Since poultry and pork producers aren’t allowed to use hormones, it’s superfluous at best to make this claim. Businesses who use this are saying, “Hey, we followed the rules! Look at us!”|
|Pastured beef||No||This probably makes you think the cow grew up on a ranch and spent all of its days there, but that’s misleading. A “pastured beef” cow could have spent all or only few months of its 12-20 months of life on a pasture. Considering that 80% of our beef cows start their lives on pasture, even the ones that finish their last couple months on a feedlot, this claim is technically true for most beef. We consumers won’t know the duration, unless it has been certified by one of the grassfed beef organizations. The issues around grassfed beef, are so complex that USDA decided to get out of this discussion as of January 2016.|
Another one that bothers me is “gluten free”, especially on items that are naturally gluten free, like corn chips and milk. Although I appreciate that this is helpful for out gluten-sensitive friends, for most people, gluten is not our enemy, but this claim implies that it is. (For more on this, I highly recommend Stefen Yafa’s book, A Grain of Truth). In fact, gluten free alternatives could be nutritionally worse for you.
What to Do
There’s always the option to stop eating amidst all this confusion, but that generally doesn’t have a good ending. The other extreme is to give up hope of ever knowing what you’re consuming and eat whatever comes across your path. The middle way is to forego the confusion by trying to eat food in its most whole form, apply your knowledge as best you can, and ask questions.
To get you started, I’ve put together a short list of links to user friendly articles and web pages. Enjoy and Bon Appetit!
How to Read Food Labels
Understanding Label Claims
Utah State University Label Claim Quick Guide (pdf)
Parting advice from Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, “Never buy anything that has more than five ingredients, any ingredients you can’t pronounce, anything artificial, with a health claim, or with a cartoon on the package.”
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