Decoding Food Labels

Posted by Dave Tomar on September 15, 2014

Decoding Food Labels

Shopping for groceries used to be so simple.  Some fresh produce, some frozen foods, a quick visit to the dairy fridge and you were all set.  But the grocery store has changed a lot in recent years.  Labels have gotten more detailed, sections have become more specific and specialty items have become more abundant.  On top of that, we’re learning new things all the time about health, nutrition and dietary restrictions.

There’s no question that we stand to gain a great deal from this growing range of options and improved knowledge.  However, it can make a trip to the supermarket a lot more challenging than it used to be.  How do you know which items are right for you?

Well a good place to start is by understanding what distinguishes some of these specialty foods from the supermarket items that you’re used to.  You see the words “natural,” “organic,” and “GMOs” on your food labels all the time, but what do they actually mean?

Natural

“Natural” sounds great and a lot of times it is.  But it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does.  In fact, in many cases, food manufacturers may simply be pandering to the rising popularity of all-natural ingredients while including all manner of processed junk.

In reality, according to Organic: It’s Worth It, there are no FDA or USDA standards defining ‘natural’ foods.  In many cases, the label may be little more than a ploy to draw in health-conscious consumers.  Read the ingredients to determine how natural a product really is.  The label alone won’t tell you everything you need to know.

Organic

Organic denotes that the food in question was produced entirely without the use of farming pesticides or other chemical contaminants.  Food can also not be genetically modified or irradiated.  Animals used to produce organic meat must be raised on a diet of organically grown feed without animal byproducts.

According to Tufts University, food that is labeled ‘organic’ must come from an organic farm that is certified by one of a few recognized certifying organizations.  Tufts points to the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), Farm Verified Organic (FVO), Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), and the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) as a few of the most notable independent certifiers.

All organic farms and processors must be inspected on an annual basis by these USDA-approved certifiers.  Tufts also outlines a few important distinctions that should help you interpret your organic labels. 

‘100% organic’ is pretty self-explanatory.  In this case, all ingredients must be completely organic.  In order to gain a USDA Certified Organic seal, or a label that simply reads ‘organic,’ a product must be made of 95% organic ingredients.  Products of at least 70% organic ingredients, where at least three organic ingredients are also listed, are eligible for a “Made With Organic Ingredients” label.

Anything less than 70% organic is not considered organic.

GMOs

Where organic foods have generated a lot of positive attention in recent years, the opposite is true of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  Non-GMO Project identifies these as plants or animals that have been genetically engineered using DNA from bacteria, viruses or other living organisms. 

The Project points out that GMOs are almost universally engineered to produce natural insecticides or to resist herbicides.  According to the Project, a growing body of evidence says that genetically-altered foods may be connected to negative health outcomes and environmental damage. 

More than 60 countries around the world have far-reaching restrictions against GMOs based on these concerns.  The Project says that in the U.S., however, nearly 80% of all processed food products have some genetically modified content. 

If you want to avoid GMOs, avoid processed and pre-packaged foods or just look for the GMO label.  


TAGS: reading nutrition labels