100 Days of Fitness
FOOD LABELS – HELPFUL OR HYPE?
by Lauren Squier, MPH, RD
Being an informed consumer is important these days, especially when it comes to food. Each time we buy food at the grocery store, we are voting with our dollars. While we’ve been busy with life, our food has become more processed and less nutritious. More and more products display marketing phrases to grab consumers’ attention; some have technical meaning and others are just fluff. How well do you know your food labeling terms?
More Meaningful = Regulations and certifications with government oversight:
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certification
- Produce is certified to have grown in soil with no “prohibited substances” for three years prior to harvest. “Prohibited substances” include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
- Regulations require that organic meats come from animals that are:
- raised in living conditions which accommodate their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture),
- fed 100% organic feed and forage, and
- not administered antibiotics or hormones.
- Regulations prohibit organically processed foods from containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their nearly all ingredients are organic.
- Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are prohibited in organic foods.
- Do This: Prioritize The Dirty Dozen, dairy and eggs.
- A USDA Certification
- Meat from livestock that were fed grass for the lifetime of the animal after being weaned from their mother’s milk. Their diet must be solely from foraging and the animals must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
- Grass-fed beef is more humanely raised, less likely to contribute to environmental degradation, and less likely to contain superbugs (bacteria resistant to antibiotics).
- Consumer Reports found that grass-fed beef averaged $2.50 more and grass-fed organic beef averaged $3 more per pound than conventional supermarket beef.
- Do This: Decide if the extra cost is worth it for you.
- A USDA Certification
- Hens are housed in a way that allows for unlimited access to food and water as well as provides continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.
- Did you know chickens are omnivores? They naturally eat bugs, grubs and small creatures when allowed to hunt and peck outside.
- Humane Farm Animal Care’s (HFAC) Certified Humane®“Free Range” requirement is 2 sq. ft. per bird. Hens must be outdoors, weather permitting, for at least 6 hours a day.
“Pastured” or “Pasture Raised”
- HFAC’s Certified Humane®“Pasture Raised” requirement is 1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated.
- Hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing, where they can go inside to protect themselves from predators or severe weather.
Less Meaningful = Marketing claims without much substance:
“Healthy” can be used to describe:
- meat and poultry products with no more than 480 milligrams (mg) of sodium,
- “meal-type products” with 600 mg of sodium or less, and
- products that aren’t healthy, such as sugar-laden cereal
A product that is “minimally processed,” or processed in a manner that does not “fundamentally change the product.” It contains no artificial ingredients or added color.
- USDA Graded eggs identified as cage-free must undergo a review process to verify the claim is truthful by USDA through onsite farm visits, at least twice annually.
- The eggs must be produced by hens housed with unlimited access to food and water as well as freedom to roam during the laying cycle. It does not mean they spend time outdoors.
Other Labels of Interest
Genetically Modified (GM)
- Genetically modified (GM) means that a food’s genes (DNA) have been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, for example through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.
- Most GM foods are from plants, but GM animals are coming to the market. GM Salmon has been approved for sale in the US: AquAdvantage Salmon.
- Most genetically modified crops have been developed to improve yield through increased resistance to disease or tolerance to herbicides.
- The Academy of Sciences reports that GM foods “are not expected to cause health problems,” however “we are limited in what we can know.” Crop yields have not increased as expected.
- Popular GM food crops include soybean, corn, sugar beets, canola, papaya, and summer squash.
- An independent third party verification program.
- Requires application, evaluation, and at times GMO testing and on-site inspection.
- Anindependent study by Consumer Reports found the Non-GMO Project Verified seal to be the only “highly meaningful” label for consumers looking to avoid GMOs.
Labeling terms can be confusing, but because they often affect the price you pay for food, it’s important to evaluate the cost/benefit…is this a good way for me to spend my food dollars? Is this food worth the extra cost? These are questions that only you can answer. I hope this article helped make those decisions.
 “Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center Report on GMOs in Corn and Soy.” Oct. 2014.
Questions about any of the above? Need more guidance? Email the expert! Lauren welcomes questions and is always happy to share more tips and tricks with anyone who asks so… ask away!
Lauren Squier, MPH, RD
Lauren Squier, MPH, RD, is a Registered Dietitian, trained chef and owner of Culinary Enlightenment. Lauren’s nutrition background and culinary skills provide a unique blend of resources to help people plan meals, shop, cook, and eat better. For more than a decade, she has been teaching nutrition to children, adults and families through healthy cooking and eating.
Read more about Lauren here. Check her website for more articles & recipes and come to bootcamp and talk to her in person about your nutrition challenges. She has a lot of knowledge and is always ready to share it.