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Food Labels and Their Meanings

Grocery shopping, for many people, can be a daunting experience. Sifting through the isles, it can be difficult to know what foods are actually healthy, and which ones should be avoided. Unfortunately, simply shopping at a health-food store doesn’t solve the issue. Customers these days must be on high alert for suspicious and dangerous ingredients, as well as misrepresented labels that have little if any value. Every seal, certification, stamp, and logo has a different set of standards to live up to, making them unequal in their value. Some have very strict guidelines to meet, while others have practically no guidelines. So how do we know which brands to choose, which labels are significant, and which can be ignored? This little guide will help you to navigate the store isles as it explains some major food labels and their meanings.

Produce Numbering:

Produce is less confusing than processed food when it comes to labels. As a consumer, it is important to pay close attention to the PLU number on produce stickers to determine what to buy. A 4-digit code beginning with the number “4” indicates a conventional product. Pesticide residues may be present on these items as conventional farming methods were used. A 5-digit code beginning with the number “9” indicates an organic product. This product should contain far less pesticide residues as it was grown according to USDA Organic standards. The only time confusion arises is with GMO foods. A 5-digit code beginning with the number “8” indicates a Genetically Modified product. This also might be indicated by a 4-digit code with no specific number attached. This method throws off customers who are wise to the numbering system. Unfortunately, it is hard to determine the origin of unlabeled food, so be wary when shopping in the produce section. My advice is to stick with organic produce as much as possible.

All-Natural:

This label has no real meaning because the FDA hasn’t set any regulations in place for foods labeled “all-nautal” to live up to. Therefore, something that is highly processed containing dyes, artificial flavorings and synthetic ingredients might still be labeled “all-natural.”  Moreover, nutritionally viable foods might also be labeled “all-natural,” but the label itself holds no weight, especially when comparing it to a label like “certified organic.” It is primarily used as a way to trick the consumer into thinking that a product is healthier than it really is, especially when it’s planted on highly processed foods. Other wording might include: “”Naturally Flavored,” “100% Natural,” or “Natural Ingredients.” When reading food labels, disregard this one.

Certified Organic:

Foods with the “USDA Certified Organic” label are worth paying attention to. Organic certifications can be strict, and rightfully so. Farmers pay more for the certification, often having to alter their practices to meet the requirements of the certification. For example, a buffer zone must be in place to separate organic crops from non-organic crops. Farmers must go through several inspections, providing records confirming their daily compliance to the standards. Inspectors may examine any aspect of the production process, including soil composition and even transportation used for the final product. Pest management, fertilizers, water and soil used in crop production must all meet strict standards, and these things are all periodically tested. When shopping for foods, understand that the “USDA Certified Organic” label implies that 95% of the product contains certified organic, Non-GMO ingredients that have met the standards set in place under the organic certification. This does also mean that the remaining 5% of ingredients have no regulations, and could be non-organic and even GMO ingredients. Processed organic foods, made with a combination of ingredients, are usually the only things that might contain that 5% of suspicious ingredients that we the consumer have no control over. It is nice to think that a company that’s willing to make the effort to have a “USDA Certified Organic” product would understand that their customers don’t want to see any dirty fillers in their foods. We can only hope that they omit them from the final product.

Made with Organic Ingredients:

This label requires that at least 70% of the final product contains certified organic ingredients. The other 30% is usually non-organic or simply not certified. The USDA label is not permitted on products containing only 70% organic ingredients. Other foods with even fewer organic ingredients are not permitted to use the “Made with Organic Ingredients” label, and can only list the organic ingredients used in the product.

Cage Free:

In the meat industry, animals are often confined to cramped living quarters or cages. The “Cage Free” label indicates that the animal was given the option of roaming free at some point during the day. This doesn’t imply that the animals had access to a pasture, or that they even left the cage. Like “all-natural,” “cage free” has no definitive standards in place to ensure that animals have a certain size space to roam within, or that they roam. Other labels might include: “Free-Roaming,” “Free Range,” or “Pastured.” This label is another way for companies to trick the consumer into thinking that the animals were treated humanely before being harvested. Whether this is true or not is difficult to determine.

Gluten-Free:

This label is a little trickier because it comes in many forms, and not all are safe. “Made with Gluten-Free Ingredients” does not indicate that the product is 100% free from gluten, only that the main ingredients are gluten-free. People suffering from celiac disease or severe gluten allergies might want to be wary of this label. “Gluten-Free” is a label that must comply with FDA regulations. Foods with this label cannot contain or be derived from grains that contain gluten (unless the product contains less than 20 ppm of gluten), nor can they be processed in a facility that also processes a gluten-containing grains. Not all foods that are “Gluten-Free” are required by the FDA to be labeled as such, which makes it even more difficult finding them when shopping. The consumer can only assume that if it does not have that label, there is a chance that the product contains gluten (excluding produce). Consumers may also see a “Certified Gluten-Free” label on packages. This label was created by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) to offer some standards for companies to follow, as well as provide an easily-identifiable label for consumers. Because the FDA doesn’t require this labeling, it remains completely voluntary for companies to display it.

Non-GMO:

Once again, the FDA has failed to set in place any regulations regarding GMO labeling. While the United States struggles to get GMO’s labeled, harmful foods sit on store shelves with no obvious indicator pointing them out to consumers. Though it is not required that companies label their foods if they contain GMO’s (and what company would voluntarily do that?), responsible companies can label them as being Non-Gmo. The Non-GMO Project as assembled a set of parameters for companies to follow if they want to label their foods as “Non-GMO Project Verified.” These include strict tests for high-risk ingredients (e.g. soy beans, which are often GMO if not grown organically), and various tests for low-risk ingredients. Moreover, no product displaying their seal can contain more than .9% GMO ingredients. No other GMO labeling will meet these standards, so it might be wise to disregard them altogether: “Non-GMO,” “GMO-Free,” etc. Often times, non-GMO products will coincide with organic products, as “Certified Organic” must be mostly free of GMO ingredients.

Vegan/Vegetarian/Kosher: Similarly, vegan, vegetarian and kosher foods have no FDA regulations behind their labeling. Some organizations have taken labeling into their own hands, providing labels that indicate what they are. “Certified Vegan,” for example, is a logo created by the Vegan Action Organization that implies that the product doesn’t contain any animal product or byproducts. It goes even further to indicate that the product wasn’t tested on animals (assuming that consumers purchasing vegan products have compassion for animals). The standards are as you would expect: no animal products, byproducts or GMO’s used in the production or manufacturing process. The same idea exists for kosher and vegetarian products, and is independently regulated by organizations that try to make an effort for consumers who want to know what they’re purchasing.

Sustainable:

This label will often be found on seafood packages and products that may lead to deforestation through unsustainable practices. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provides a label for seafood that indicates that a fishery has met their standards. These include maintaining a sustainable fish population (no over-fishing or targeting at-risk species), having a low environmental-impact, prohibiting illegally-caught seafood from being harvested, and so on. Many fisheries are tracked and their catch is traced to ensure they meet the requirements of the MSC labeling. For other food products, sustainability standards might be signified by a “Fair-Trade,” “Fair for Life,” or “Rainforest Alliance” seal and the like. These often indicate a low-environmental impact, fair working conditions, proper land use practices and management, as well as others. Standards set by these certifications provide a general outline for producers to follow based on their crop, location, harvesting and manufacturing processes. Though the standards may be vague, varying from crop to crop, they ensure that steps are being made to ethically produce a product.

With consumerism leaning more toward being nutritionally and environmentally-conscious, labels will arise in an attempt to raise the bar for, meet, or give the illusion of specific food standards. Even with seals, stamps, approvals and certifications, there is going to be some inconsistency. As a consumer, it is important to keep that in mind. Research questionable ingredients and read the labels on the back of any processed food, regardless of the seals. It is incorrect to assume the because a food is labeled “gluten-free” that it is also healthy for you. I find many consumers shopping in the gluten-free section, thinking that it is healthy. The truth is, many of those items are highly processed gluten-free foods just like any other conventional product. Likewise, even “USDA Certified Organic” products may contain ingredients like cane sugar, soy lecithin and palm oil. As a large number of risky ingredients linger in processed foods, my advice is to choose organic whole foods and minimize processed foods, regardless of their labeling. If you must have your chips, cereal, waffles, etc. choose items with the fewest ingredients and follow the label guide above.