We’re digging into the truth behind 15 popular food labels to see if they’re really what they say they are, and which ones we can trust most as we shop.
We were waiting hungrily in an airport recently and stumbled on a better than average looking food spot sporting all the right words to grab our attention. As we stood in line choosing our meals, Jared pointed out to me, ‘Look their chicken is even hormone free’, reasonably suggesting he was about to make a noble travel food choice. I don’t blame him, and (while I’m extra picky about my meat and don’t eat it on the road), a month ago I would have thought the same thing. As we always buy local and all organic meat, I hadn’t delved deep into meat labelling until a recent class I ran with a friend. Labels make us buy things, and marketers are very good at their jobs. I don’t blame them. But as those little terms and symbols are forever going to be in our faces, it is important to educate ourselves on what the seemingly healthy food labels actually mean. Some of them do benefit us and can be great indicators of what we’re buying, but a lot can be misleading if we don’t educate ourselves. So before you spend your hard earned cash on the more expensive, cleverly labelled products, here are some food labelling terms that you may want to watch out for and read up on. Clever marketing doesn’t mean that we can’t know what’s in our food and can’t ever trust a label, don’t despair. It just means we have to be as clever as the marketers, we have to dig a little deeper, turn some packets over, read further, and discover what’s actually in the food we buy.
2. No antibiotics and Hormones
3. “Grass Fed”
4. “Nutrition Facts”
5. “Cage Free” or “Free Range”
6. “Whole Wheat” or “Multi-Grain”
7. Fat Free, Sugar Free or anything else “Free”
8 “Pesticide Free”
9. “Omega 3”
12. “Made with Real Fruit”
13. Serving Size
15. “Lightly Sweetened”
An organic label indicates that 95% of the product is organic, unless stated otherwise. You may also have seen “100% Organic” which would indicate that all of the ingredients used are organically produced. And a food with at least 70% organic ingredients can be labeled “made with organic ingredients.” When it comes to meat, animals must be reared on land that is certified organic as well as being fed certified organic feed, never being given antibiotics or added growth hormones and they must have outdoor access. While these standards make welfare better than conventional farming, ‘organic’ does not guarentee that the meat was produced on a small farm, where animals roamed freely, or that the animals were treated humanely. Remember, products must always have the USDA Certified Organic seal to be accurate.
No antibiotics and Hormones
More than 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for livestock production. With antibiotic resistance becoming more and more of a pressing issue, I really care about this one! Most companies use antibiotics to make healthy animals grow faster and keep them from getting diseases that may arise due to unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. Producers must submit documentation that the livestock was not administered any antibiotics or hormones to label their meat “raised without antibiotics” and “no hormones” but there isn’t any third-party verification or testing. NOTE: The use of hormones in pork and poultry is not allowed by federal regulation! So that labelling, as we saw in the airport, actually means nothing more than ‘we keep the law’, which I would hope would be true anyway but certainly isn’t worth your extra dollars!
This is a term that is sort of regulated by the USDA. We would like to think the animal ate 100% grass on a nice large pasture. However, the USDA allows anyone to use this term provided documentation is submitted saying that their animals are grass fed; no farm inspection required. The USDA standard does not allow for grain finishing (feeding grain for a short time prior to slaughter to fatten the cattle).
Grass fed meat is healthier and many believe more nutritious but just be aware, animals can still be confined, and given both antibiotics and hormones. So look for grass fed and organic too, or an addition label certifying more than USDA standards. A stricter labelling to look for here is the AGA label from the American Grass Fed Association. Finding products with that label ensures: “that the animals can only be fed grass and forage, can never be confined, never receive antibiotics or hormones, and must be born and raised in the U.S.”
NOTE: Before these rules went into place in 2006, anyone could use the term on their products and those people were “grandfathered” in under the rule, whether they meet the requirements or not.
The FDA allows food manufactures to use averages for calorie counts, salt content, and fat grams (and any other information on the nutrition panel)! These averages are allowed to be off by as much as 20 percent. Also, manufacturers are allowed to put “0” if the amount of anything on the label (including trans fats) is under .5 grams. This will add up especially fast considering most of us eat more than just one serving.
A tip for reading ingredient lists: Ingredients have to be listed in order of they’re volume in a product. Sometimes ingredients, usually sugar, will be split up into different types and names so that each on can sit further down the list and not give the unappealing first ingredient of ‘sugar’. Look for those disguised ingredients, and also to the nutrition facts total sugars line to get a better idea!
“Cage Free” or “Free Range”
Every step better we can get in welfare standards and food quality is great but be aware, in most cage free operations, the chickens aren’t in cages but do still live fairly confined, inside a windowless steel building and not outside where they belong. The term also gives no indication on their feed or anything else. Chickens raised for meat rather than eggs are rarely kept in cages anyway because when in cages chickens suffer problems that can make the meat less appealing to consumers.
“Whole Wheat” or “Multi-Grain”
The FDA has never explicitly stated that anything labeled multi-grain must contain the whole version of all the grains that are used. Some products exaggerate their whole grain credentials by using caramel color to mimic the brown color so that it looks like they use only whole grains even when unbleached wheat flour is still the main ingredient. Just be sure to read the label and look for 100% whole grain on any grain ingredient used.
Fat Free, Sugar Free or anything else “Free”
This was one of the first labels that marketers used to catch our sometimes gullible consumer eyes and it has been adapted to work with every dietary trend since. It is an honest claim, but one that we read as a blanket statement. The product will be free from whatever it claims to be free from, yes, but that doesn’t mean anything more than the bones of the claim. ‘Fat Free’, often means in reality ‘sugar laden’ to compensate for taste, or conversely ‘Sugar Free’ can be full of fats and likely, artificial additives that are potentially worse than the omitted sugar.
The popular new label ‘Gluten Free’ is just as true, and just as misread. This means just what it states. It is only talking about the gluten content, or lack thereof, and can be used regardless of what else is in the product. It is absolutely not a marker of health, whole healthy foods, or anything else! (Read more about this in my post Gluten: Fact, Fad or Fiction)
Roundup and Atrazine are two pesticides used widely on agriculture which have been linked to many health issues. So naturally the food industry is finding ways to get around this in selling products by using labels like “free from pesticide residues”. Note, ‘residues‘. If it doesn’t have an organic seal, be wary of this term.
Real omega-3 fats are good, but that doesn’t mean every product with this term is a good source of it. The FDA allows certain foods that are rich in two of the omega-3 fats to advertise that they can reduce heart health risks, but only if they’re also low in saturated fats or other risk factors. Which is why some unhealthy foods use a bit of marketing misdirection: the packaging has the word “omega-3,” but nothing specifically about heart health.
Currently, fiber is being added to foods such as ice creams, yogurts, juices and drinks so that manufacturers can brag about their fiber content. However, most of these products do not contain the traditional sources of fiber associated with a variety of health benefits. Many times the ingredients used to provide extra fiber are also used for low-calorie filling agents rather than proven health agents.
NOTE: Despite its huge role in our health, in America there is no recommended daily intake for fiber, so you won’t find that indicator on labels. Do your own research into the different kinds (soluble vs insoluble, we need both) and where it can come from and ensure you get what you need with real food ingredients!
Companies can use the word “local” on their products if the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product; or the State in which the product is produced. Local is great as it means fewer food miles impacting the environment, and it means it’s likely a food that’s in season, making it less likely to be artificially ripened. Just remember, the label is only accountable for meaning anything about the distance food has travelled. While local produce tends to be better and when sourced at farmers markets etc is often also organic or well raised, the term doesn’t inherently mean that, always ask a few more questions!
“Made with Real Fruit”
More often than not, the fruit that’s advertised is not the fruit that’s actually in the item. While you think you’re getting one set of benefits from what’s advertised, you’re most likely getting something completely different. Not only that, but “real fruit” quantities aren’t regulated by the FDA, so the amount could be so miniscule that it won’t have any beneficial effects at all. When it comes to fruit, just eat the real thing.
A 20 oz. soda fits easily in your hand, fits easily in your car’s cup holder and might even come free with a sandwich at the local deli. But even a reasonable person might perceive that bottle as a single serving; there are 2.5 official servings in there, meaning 100 calories per “serving” … but 240 calories per bottle.
Most serving size calculations are based on standards developed decades ago. How many people do you know restrain themselves to 1/2 cup of granola?
There isn’t any official definition of “natural,” except when it comes to meat. The USDA has defined it as any meat product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and is minimally processed. The definition doesn’t make any statements about how the animals were raised or if they were fed hormones or antibiotics. Other than meat, a product can be as “natural” as the manufacturer would like you to believe.
This term isn’t officially regulated by the FDA, which means it could have endless grams of sugar and still have this claim. Your best bet, as always, is to read the nutrition label and ingredients list.
Knowing what labels mean should be empowering and not intimidating, we really can have all the information to buy the food we really want without being mislead! The closer you can get to the producer and knowing the origin of your food, the better off you will be. Personally, in for our home we try to shop for ingredients that are as organic, local, and unprocessed as possible, using small businesses and farms in our community where we can. It’s also a lot easier to do well with labelling if you buy the simplest ingredients and then make your own food rather than buying things with multiple ingredients.
**The terms are common within the U.S. and that was where we focused out research! I encourage you to research common labels in your country and dig into local certifications and labeling!