Don’t Fall Victim to Food Labels—Here’s What You Need to Know
Many packaging claims aren’t regulated and can say whatever they want.
It’s easy to get caught up with clean and simple food packaging with holier-than-thou claims like All-Natural, Local, and Organic. If it looks healthy, it must be healthy, right? Not so fast. Many of the packaging claims you load into your grocery cart aren’t regulated and are purely for marketing purposes.
“Consumers need to be educated on the food products that they’re buying and what’s going into them,” says Kristen Chang, R.D. “You have to play an active role versus expecting companies to be 100 percent straightforward with their processes and recognize that marketing can play into the verbiage that go into packaging.”
Let’s take a closer look.
Natural and All Natural
According to findings from Consumer Reports, 62 percent of shoppers usually buy foods that are labeled “natural.” And nearly half think the foods have been independently verified. That’s not the case.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) define natural and all natural by saying a food does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives, and that there is only minimal processing. But these foods may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, or other similar chemicals.
“The term isn’t regulated or enforced,” says Chang.
In 2016, the FDA asked the public to comment on what it wanted in a definition of natural, but so far, nothing has come of it. The commenting period closed in May of that year.
The Takeaway: It’s best to choose items with whole foods, says Chang. Look for short ingredient lists with items you can identify. “And keep in mind,” says Chang, “the word ‘natural’ does not imply health.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the organic label is one of the most tightly regulated, says Chang. To put it simply, a food is not organic if it contains GMOs, additives, or preservatives, or if it uses food irradiation—a way to give foods a longer shelf life—or pesticides.
For meats to be labeled organic, the animals have to be raised in conditions that follow their natural behavior (like grazing on a pasture), fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, and be free of antibiotics or hormones.
But organic foods are not necessarily healthier when it comes to their nutritional profile, says Chang.
“Organic fruits and veggies don’t have a higher mineral content or higher levels of antioxidants,” she says. “We’re more talking to what they don’t have.”
When it comes to choosing organic, prioritize produce that doesn’t have protective rinds, like berries, apples, and peaches, because you won’t have to worry about eating pesticide residue, says Chan.
The Takeaway: Consult the Dirty Dozen list to help you decide what foods are better off being organic, and then look for the USDA organic seal to make sure what you’re buying is organic.
Chan also recommends buying produce from smaller vendors, like those at a farmers’ market. “A lot of those products aren’t certified organic because of how expensive the process is, but if you get to know the vendor you get to know their practices.”
Interested in learning more about what packaging claims really mean? Read on:
There used to be an official USDA definition of grass-fed, but that was removed in 2016, and it’s unclear why, says Chan.
“Now that term is a lot more open to interpretation,” she says.
But the idea is that grass-fed cows eat, well, grass, while their grain-fed counterparts eat corn and soy, which is not part of their natural diet.
Scientific research suggests that grass-fed beef is more nutritious and less likely to carry harmful bacteria. It’s also lower in overall fat and higher in the good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids.
The Takeaway: While the claim is not regulated, Chan recommends looking for a third-party verification label, either from the American Grassfed Association or the Food Alliance.
Cage-Free / Free-Range / Pasture-Raised
Similar to grass-fed, these terms are not definitively defined, nor are they regulated by the government.
Cage-free eggs, explains Chan, mean the hens are not raised in a caged housing system. However, that doesn’t mean hens are living outside or even given adequate room to move around.
“The cage-free label doesn’t carry any weight if you’re buying chicken meat,” says Chan. “It’s not a common practice to raise chickens used for meat in a cage.”
Which brings us to the free-range or pasture-raised labels.
These claims mean the hens are not confined to cages and they have the ability to roam.
“They may spend some time in the barn because their natural tendency is go to their coop to lay eggs, but when they’re not there, they’re roaming and doing what chickens are meant to do, like scratching the grass and dust-bathing,” says Chan.
The Takeaway: There’s no research that says cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised eggs are any healthier, says Chan. But, a third-party certification might mean that the chickens are living more humane lives, which may be an important factor for some when selecting their eggs.
One of the big buzzwords when it comes to healthy eating and environmental sustainability is local. According to the USDA, it’s defined as being produced, marketed, and distributed in a limited geographic area, but there is no set distance. The USDA points out that the more important issue is connecting local food systems with consumers at the point of sale, like at a farmer’s market or CSA program.
“The biggest perk of eating local is you get to know exactly where your food source originates from,” says Chang. “You get to know the vendor’s specific practices and you know you’re buying in-season produce.”
Why is that important?
“In season foods are typically picked at their ripest, when the nutrient content is the highest,” says Chang.
The Takeaway: Eating local is a surefire way to help you get a variety of in-season foods, which are healthier, taste better, and are better for the environment. Plus, says Chang, you’re supporting local farms and the local economy.
An easy way for marketers to jump on a trend is to call out what is inherently true about a product. Spoiler: Plant-based foods are always cholesterol-free—dietary cholesterol is found only in animal products. So when you reach for an olive oil with a huge starburst that says, “Cholesterol-free,” it doesn’t make it healthier than the olive oil without the marketing claim.
“It’s stating the obvious,” says Chang. “It’s the same as saying broccoli is gluten-free.”
The Takeaway: A little education goes a long way. By understanding what’s fundamentally true about a product will make you think twice about a marketing claim.
No Sugar Added / Natural Sugar
As more and more research comes out on the dangers of consuming too much sugar, marketers are trying to make their foods palatable—literally and figuratively. The first thing to know, says Chang, is that neither claim means a food is healthy and you should always further investigate the label to determine what else is in that product.
“The first couple ingredients on the list hold the greatest weight, and they should be whole foods that you recognize,” she says. “If one of the first few ingredients are sugar, that’s a red flag.”
A “no-sugar-added” label can only be used when, well, no sugar or sugar-containing ingredients have been used during processing. That doesn’t mean the food doesn’t have sugar. For example, canned fruit with no sugar added still has the natural fructose sugar from fruit. And foods that are labeled “no sugar added” may use artificial sweeteners.
As for natural sugar, that claim refers to the sugars naturally found in foods, and there are two of them: fructose (fruit) and lactose (dairy).
While unrefined sugars—honey, maple syrup, and molasses—are better for you than processed sugars thanks to their vitamins and minerals, they’re not naturally in a product, and they’re still sugar, says Chang.
The Takeaway: You need to be mindful of your overall sugar intake, says Chang. Sugar is in nearly everything. But soon, all labels will be required to list the amount of added sugar in a product, which will help consumers better understand what’s naturally in a product and how much extra sugar is added.