Let's Talk Food Labels
Updated: May 6
Reading a packaged item can be tricky as marketing terms like made with organic ingredients, non-GMO, whole grain, refined sugar-free, etc." have polluted our isles. The food industry is one of
the largest industries and you can bet the marketing efforts to sell a product are specifically strategized based on trending terminology. For example, there is no specific regulation for the term "natural" or "whole food" on packaged products, therefore it is important to know what to look for.
1. USDA Certified Organic
This seal prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, GMO' s, sewage sludge, irradiation, or processing with added artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives within plant products. Animal products with this seal free of added antibiotics, hormones, and must be grass-fed with feed free of animal by-products. *Always be on the lookout for this seal.
Organic can be expensive and inaccessible for some, therefore, there's a middle ground called the Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen. Every year, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identify foods to test for pesticide residue, known as the Pesticide Data Program (PDP). The PDP allows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine if residues exceed the EPA established tolerance. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) develops annual lists of the highest residue and lowest residue items to provide the community a resource for informed consumerism and the opportunity for consumers who cannot purchase organic, a greater risk for toxic exposure.
The "Dirty Dozen" refers to products with higher levels of pesticides. In fact, more than 98% of the top 4 foods listed on the dirty dozen test positive for at least one or more pesticide residue. The latter, known as the "Clean 15" produces less pesticide residue while undergoing the same PDP testing, therefore, these non-organic produce result in a decreased toxic exposure (and more $$ in your pocket). Check out those lists here.
2. Non-GMO Project
This seal verifies GMO testing and labeling of non-GMO products. A threshold of 0.9% must be met to label a product a GMO. Non- GMO project is a non-profit prohibiting GMOs in farming, processing, and requires testing at multiple levels. This seal does NOT regulate the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, artificial coloring, preservatives, nor is this seal regulated by federal law or requires animals to eat organic feed & be pasture-raised. *Tread lightly if no USDA certified organic seal.
3. Enriched vs. Fortified
Bread, cereal, milk, and various products state they are either "enriched"
or "fortified" but what does that mean? Enriching refers to the loss of nutrients due to processing but these nutrients synthetically have been added back into the product. Whereas fortification refers to
the addition of vitamins or minerals into a product that did not originally contain these nutrients.
4. Whole-grain vs. Whole Wheat
A common misconception with grains is what the terms whole grain and whole wheat actually mean. Whole grain refers to a product made from any grain kernel - meaning you could be eating a mixture of different grains like barley, spelt, quinoa, etc. This does not necessarily mean the entire grain is utilized in production. Whole wheat means the product is made entirely from the wheat kernel - the germ, bran & endosperm. It becomes confusing when the terms "wheat" or "multigrain" are thrown around but without the word "whole" - you are not benefiting from the grain in its entirety.
More important than the nutritional facts - in my opinion - is the actual ingredients listed in the product. A few things to avoid & keep an eye out for include:
partially hydrogenated oil
high-fructose corn syrup
Sodium Nitrate & Nitrite
Sodium Benzoate & Benzoic acid
ANY food coloring
Non-nutritive Sweeteners like Asparatame, Saccharin, & Sucralose
Gums like guar gum, or xanthan gum (especially if you suffer from GI concerns)
My rule of thumb: If you cannot pronounce or understand an ingredient - aim to choose a different option if that is accessible and available to you. Additionally, the smaller and simpler the ingredient list, the more likely the product is higher quality, less processed, and possibly better for your health.