How to understand food labels to keep your family healthy
If you're pregnant, trying for a baby or just want to improve your family's diet, use this guide to help decipher some of the most common terms seen at the grocery store.
Mon, Apr 08, 2013 at 03:32 PM
So you are trying for a baby, pregnant or a mom just trying to buy safer products for your family. You have some idea that there are bad chemicals in lots of products out there and want to make sure you make the safest choices. But you aren’t really sure what all these labels really mean! Let me tell you, what you don’t know may be costing you…both money and your health! Let’s talk about some of the most common so you can make educated choices and protect your family!
Organics: This means nothing. It can be used in the description, name, etc and does not have any regulation or requirement. There are many food companies that will use this term and still use GMOs, milk and meat from animals fed GMOs or traditional chemicals in products. (Many popular companies that people believe they are truly organic. READ YOUR LABELS! If most is organic but the cheese, for example, is not, then those animals are likely fed GMOs. There are new studies showing this is a route of exposure of GMO to pregnant women (eating meat and dairy fed GMO). Also a study showed 100 percent of women and cord blood of the fetus tested were positive for GMOs which disputes what the companies who create GMOs claim which is GMOs are destroyed in the gut and therefore cause no harm.
Made with organic ingredients: In food, this means the product will contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Many of these products will contain the same chemicals that you are trying to avoid, along with the organic ingredients. This is a red flag and typically is used to fool the consumer. However, there are some great products out there that don’t meet the USDA standards and contain organic ingredients and other safer ingredients. In personal products, you will need to read the entire label to determine the safety of the product. While it may contain organic ingredients, it also may (and likely does) contain the typical parabens and other chemicals that traditional products contain. READ THE LABEL to determine safety!
USDA Organic: This is one of the few regulated terms. This requires at least 95 percent of the ingredients in the product are organic. The other 5 percent can not be organic, but there are fairly strict limitations about what can be added in that 5 percent. No pesticides, most chemicals, artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners etc. (However, certain companies have been “cheating” and adding chemicals that are NOT approved yet still contain the USDA label. Horizon dairy products contain DHA that is not approved for organics yet still contains the label. They have also been caught with conditions like conventional dairies.)
For animals, it means they have access to the outdoors, are not fed hormones or antibiotics or genetically modified feed, do not “comingle” with non-organic animals, and livestock must be raised organic from the third stage of gestation and for poultry since the second day of life.
Certified Organic: USDA Organic regulations, and “Certified” means that the food, feed or fiber has been grown and handled according to strict organic standards which are enforced by independent third-party state or private organizations. Certification includes inspections of farm fields, livestock and processing facilities, detailed record keeping and periodic testing of soil, water and produce to ensure that growers and processors are meeting the standards of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) or other third party standards.” Quote from Oregon Tith http://tilth.org/certification/frequently-asked-questions/consumer-faqs
100% Organic: This label means that 100 percent of the product is USDA certified organic with the qualifications mentioned above.
Free-Range: This means the animal has access to the outdoors. This is the key word, as the animal can still be housed in close quarters with a small door leading to the outside. This does not mean that animals are roaming outside in their natural state. These animals can still be fed GMOs, antibiotics, etc.
Pasture-raised: A claim that livestock is “pasture-raised’ means animals have had “continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle.” For red meat product labels, the agency further required that a claim of “pasture-raised” or “free-range” be qualified with the statement “never confined to a feedlot.” Although the USDA has yet to promulgate a final rule governing pasture-raised livestock claims, the agency currently certifies such claims on a case-by-case basis. It does not specify what they are eating, hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, etc. Learn more here
Grass-fed: This is a very confusing label. An animal can be grass-fed most of their lives and then be fed grain the last 90-120 days of life and still be called grass-fed. This can include GMOs! Also, there is grass-finished beef, which means it could have been fed grain for most of their life and then grass at the end. Grass-fed beef can be injected with hormones or antibiotics or can be confined for much of their lives. Look for 100 percent grass-fed beef and ASK whether the animal has had anything other than grass. Look for USDA organic to make sure the animal is not treated with hormones or antibiotics. Or better yet, research the farm that is providing you your meat to make sure the animals are free-roaming and live natural unfettered cow lives. Learn more here
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism): “are plants or animals created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. Virtually all commercial GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. Despite biotech industry promises, none of the GMO traits currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit. Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.” (HYPERLINK http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/)
There is NO SUCH LABEL currently! The companies who create and distribute GMOs fight to prevent labeling of these ingredients as well as prevent other companies who do not use GMOs being able to label that they do not include these ingredients! Two states currently have legislation in the works to require labeling GMOs. (VT and CA) but Monsanto (creator of GMOs, agent orange, DDT and more) is spending MILLIONS to fight this labeling, to confuse the consumer with marketing and even has threatened to sue the states if implemented.
Non-GMO Verified: “The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization with a mission of protecting the non-GMO food supply and giving consumers an informed choice. We offer North America’s ONLY third party verification for products produced according to rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance (for more info, click here). Our strategy is to empower consumers to make change through the marketplace. If people stop buying GMOs, companies will stop using them and farmers will stop growing them.” http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/
Natural: Unless this is meat, then this label has NO meaning! Nearly all conventional factory food companies are jumping on the “natural” bandwagon. While most consumers may know that Kellog's, Nabisco and the big companies contain GMO, they may be surprised my some of the “natural” and “healthy” companies. Companies like Kashi and Wesson and others claim their products are all natural yet have been shown to be 100 percent GMO! Wesson is currently involved in a lawsuit because of these misleading claims. (HYPERLINK http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/25/conagra-lawsuit_n_936157.html) After all, what is less natural than GMOs. Others like Far East and other products sold and promoted in “natural” stores still contain GMO. In fact, you can read on their site and they mislead customers by telling them their rice etc is not GMO….so customers think there is no GMO in the product, yet they contain GMO soy or other additives. You cannot be guaranteed to avoid GMOs unless you buy USDA ORGANIC or the NON-GMO PROJECT VERIFIED label discussed above.
When it comes to meat, natural means “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed” Learn more here
So what you can take away from this information is many…if not MOST of the labels don’t really mean ANYTHING other than good marketing by sly companies. Just as when the “whole grain” movement took storm and everyone unhealthy sugary GMO-laden cereal suddenly claimed they were MADE WITH WHOLE GRAINS, consumers have to constantly keep on top of the current labels to know what they really are eating.
Good health choices include avoiding artificial colors, sweeteners, dyes, hormones, antibiotics, GMOs and other chemicals found in food. Recent studies are even finding arsenic, Benedryl and other frightening ingredients in factory farmed meat. While the USDA organic label may not be perfect, it is a good start. The best choice is to find a local farm that is doing the right thing by their produce and animals and support them in their efforts. It protects your family, the animals, and the environment. Remember your purchase is your vote about what kind of products you want companies to make. Regulations will only do so much…the almighty dollar rules. Vote smart!