Food labels can be a hoot :)

Food labels make me laugh and cry.  Sometimes I feel like Im reading something out of science fiction. But changes are coming. Nutrition labels are getting a make over!  In february this year  (2014) the FDA revealed the changes that are taking place.  It’s the first time these labels are revised in decades!  While these labels show a great improvement on the current ones, they are easier to read and interpret, you won’t see them at the grocery store for another 3 years.  If you would like to take a peak at the changes look here.

In the meantime I would like to provide you with some information about food labels.

Choosing healthy foods can be confusing.  Selecting from the mountain of options in the grocery store can make you  feel like you need a PhD to navigate.  Staying away from heavily processed foods can be one way to do it.  But sometimes you rely on labels to  make your selections.  Labels can be very helpful but also very misleading.  They are carefully designed to persuade the consumer to buy a product; a lot of times by making some bogus health claim.   Here are some of the most common claims made by labels and what they really mean.

 

All natural

This is one of the most deceiving labels there is, in my opinion.  People often think if a product is labeled as “natural” it is good for you.  It has been shown by studies people tend to consume bigger quantities of  products  labeled as “natural”.  I am very skeptical about products labeled this way.  The FDA has no formal definition for what “natural” means, but it will not object to the label as long as the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Marion Nestle (nutrition expert) says that natural  “means basically whatever the manufacturer decides.”  Let me give you an example.   Breyers Chocolate Chip, Cookie Dough Ice Cream is labeled as “all natural”  but look at the list of ingredients bellow.

"All Natural" ice cream

“All Natural” ice cream

Ingredients: FROZEN DAIRY DESSERT [MILK, SUGAR, CORN SYRUP, CREAM, WHEY, MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, GUAR GUM, CAROB BEAN GUM, NATURAL FLAVOR, CARRAGEENAN, ANNATTO (FOR COLOR), VITAMIN A PALMITATE, TARA GUM], CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE DOUGH PIECES [WHEAT FLOUR, SUGAR, BROWN SUGAR, PALM OIL, WATER, SOYBEAN OIL, POWDERED SUGAR (SUGAR, CORNSTARCH), CHOCOLATE LIQUOR, SALT, COCOA BUTTER, NATURAL FLAVOR (MILK), SOY LECITHIN, BAKING SODA], CHOCOLATE FLAVORED CHIPS [SUGAR, COCONUT OIL, COCOA POWDER (PROCESSED WITH ALKALI), MILKFAT, SOY LECITHIN (AN EMULSIFIER), VANILLA EXTRACT].

I doubt these ingredients could pass for a distant cousin of its original form.  I always look at the list of ingredients (those are strictly regulated).

 

Organic

Ok so here are the guidelines for a farm or product to qualify for the USDA organic label:

Cannot use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or sewage sludge.

Cannot use genetically modified organisms or irradiation.

Employ environmentally friendly practices, such as soil building, conservation and crop rotation

Refrain from the use of antibiotics or hormones in animals.

Animals must be fed 100% organic feed.

Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.

Keep records of all operations.

Organic products can fall into 3 categories. “One hundred percent organic” means products are made entirely from organic ingredients, “organic” means that at least 95 percent of a product’s ingredients are organic, and “made with organic ingredients” indicates that at least 70 percent of ingredients are organic.

 

Free range

Used only for eggs and poultry, free range means the animals are allowed access to the outdoors so they can engage in natural behaviors (such as eating bugs).  It does not mean they are cruelty free, free of antibiotics or that they spend all their time outdoors.

 

Cage free

It means the birds are not confined to cages.  They are not necessarily free range, organic or anything else for that matter.

 

Grass-fed

This means the animals live on a diet based on grass and not grains  (grains are an unnatural feed for most animals and causes an array of health issues).  They are not supposed to be supplemented with any animal byproducts, antibiotics to prevent disease, or growth hormones (they might be given antibiotics to treat sick animals).  What it doesn’t mean is that the animal was fed grass his entire life (some are fed grain prior to slaughter) or that they lived their lives outdoors.

 

Pasture Raised

A step above grass-fed, pasture raised means the animal was raised outdoors.  Feeding on grass and food found in pastures, this is a traditional farming technique that allows for a more humane treatment of the animals.  And a healthier protein, if you ask me.

 

Fresh

Food items labeled “fresh” must be raw or unprocessed, and never have been frozen or heated. They can’t contain any preservatives. But it does not mean that fruits and vegetables have been picked recently, or that animals were killed at a certain time.  Fresh produce can be traveling from far away and be sitting in a truck or store for a long time. This can create bacteria so make sure you wash your “fresh” product before consuming.  For the freshest items visit your farmer’s market or local farm if available.

 

GMO-free

Sadly products containing GMO’s ,or genetically modified organisms,  are not required to be listed or labeled.  It is almost impossible to be sure you are not consuming GMO’s.  The only way to avoid it is to use 100% organic products.  Most processed foods, especially those derived from corn and soy, contain GMO’s .  The Non GMO Project has created a seal for products created without the use of GMO’s.  For more information you can visit their website  nongmoproject.org

 

No Trans Fat

Products carrying this label can still have up to half a gram of trans fat per serving, according to the FDA.  Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat.  These happen mostly in vegetable oils (the ones you use to fry for the most part)  that have been chemically-altered by  hydrogenation.  The process increases the shelf life of the oil and improves the texture of the food to which the oil is added. Trans fats raise your LDL cholesterol levels  and increase your risk of heart disease. Because of these health risks, trans fats have been banned or restricted in several cities and counties across the United States.  Again, even if a product claims it contains no trans fat in the label, look at the ingredients.  If there is any kind of hydrogenated or “partially hydrogenated” oil in it it, they might contain trans fats.  Some of the oils touted to be healthy oils (like canola and soy)  are hydrogenated so inform yourself.

 

Fat free, sugar free 

This means the food has fewer than 0.5 grams per serving.  A product that is fat free can still contain a lot of sugar so watch out for that.  I am not a fan of any product labeled fat free, sugar free, etc. I do not believe these products are healthy, for the most part they contain a lot of chemicals ( like  “fake” sugars ), that have a lot of adverse effects on your health.  If you are diabetic,  trying to control your weight, or are simply trying to avoid sugar or fat,  there are a lot healthier alternatives than sugar free cookies.  For the sake of not starting a rant, I will leave it at that.  It is really your choice, it is not a crime to consume fat or sugar free products.  🙂
Health Claims
Now, this is a gem of a label!  Even more misleading than “natural”, this  label can make a health claim that does not require any scientific proof!  The FDA gives the vague guideline that they must be “truthful and not misleading,” but it doesn’t need to be backed up by ANY scientific evidence .  For example the label “may help reduce the risk of heart disease” would require FDA approval, while “helps maintain a healthy heart” would not.  There are soooo many product out there making outlandish health claims, you have to be very careful.  This is especially dangerous when it comes to kid’s foods.
Kellog’s Frosted Flakes cereal claims to be all kinds of great, but the claim that it is a good source of vitamin D is very misleading.  Most fortified products contain the form of vitamin D that is basically useless, because our body can’t really process it (D2).  But that is not even the biggest problem, the biggest problem is that with that “vitamin d” dose,  you are giving your child candy for breakfast.  After the first ingredient of milled corn, the next three read: Sugar, malt flavoring, and high-fructose-corn-syrup.  And let’s not forget the that the corn used by Kellog’s is more than likely  not GMO free.
Another interesting one is “Nutri-Grain” bars.  They are promoted as healthy; “More of the whole grains your body needs,” “Good source of fiber,” and “Made with real fruit.”   Never mind it contains more than 30  ingredients!  These ingredients are not very wholesome or natural; high-fructose-corn syrup, artificial flavors and red #40,to name a few.
These “health” claims are enough to confuse any one!
I would say, stay away from products making too many health claims.   Always look at the ingredients!
Proceed with caution.  Try to keep yourself up to date with what the claims really mean.  And don’t forget the healthiest foods don’t have any labels! 🙂

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