Guidelines for Interpreting Food Labels

Checking Food LabelsEvery consumer shopping in a grocery store wants to spend their food dollars wisely and fill their grocery cart with food that is safe and healthy for themselves and their family. Food labels are a great resource available to consumers to help them understand the nutritional value and ingredient content of their food as well as make comparisons between different food items. Unfortunately, food labeling designations can also make the selection of healthy foods a very confusing process. Labels can be misleading which can result in a rushed shopper purchasing a product that according to the oversized, colorful, eye catching advertising on the label appears to be healthy but actually is not. Café Services hopes this article will convey a better understanding of what several common food label designations actually mean and help you make better food choices for you and your family.

As a consumer interested in healthy eating, it is important to take the time to read food labels carefully and to know the definition of key words used in the labeling process. Initially this may take a little time, but once you have found a healthy product that fits your budget and taste, it becomes fast and efficient to go directly to that product on the shelf and add it to your cart. Stocking up on a tried and true product that you know is healthy makes shopping even simpler.

Increasing numbers of consumers are opting to buy organic foods to avoid consuming pesticides used in growing crops and the chemicals used in processing them for market. Due to the heightened demand for organic foods, grocery stores are stocking larger quantities and more varieties of foods labeled organic. The organic label, however, can be perplexing.

Cheese Labels Grocery StoreThe USDA is the regulating organization for food labeling and according to their guidelines a label reading "USDA 100% Organic" must contain all organic ingredients and be processed without the use of any non-organic substances. The label is round and green and clearly reads "USDA 100% Organic". Any organic labeling without the USDA designation is questionable and has not undergone the USDA's testing standards. A label advertising "USDA Organic" must contain 95% organic ingredients. The additional 5% of ingredients must be included on a "National List" of acceptable products. This list is created by the USDA.  Any food labeled with USDA organic or 100% Organic label is prohibited from being produced with fertilizers containing sewage-sludge or petroleum, ionizing radiation, bioengineering, antibiotics, pesticides or growth hormones. Any product manufacturer knowingly, falsely using "Organic" labeling is subject to a hefty fine, however, some misleading labels go unnoticed. To be on the safe side look for the green USDA Organic label.

Another common label is "Made with Organic Ingredients". Products with this label are required to contain at least 70% organic ingredients and must be processed without any sewage-sludge products or ionizing radiation. The organic ingredients contained in the product can be listed in the ingredient list and labeled organic. Up to three organic ingredients can be displayed on the front label. These products do not contain the "USDA Organic" label as they do not meet the USDA requirements to be labeled "Organic".

It is important that a consumer be aware that the "Organic" label refers to a chemical, preservative and pesticide free product, not necessarily a healthy product. Organic soda is still soda. Cookies and candy made with organic ingredients may still be calorically dense and can negatively impact your health if you consume them too often or consume them in place of healthy foods.

Organic Food LablesSome foods don’t have to be organic to be low in pesticides and chemicals. Several fruits and vegetables fall in this category. Often these fruits and vegetables have a tough outer skin that prevents pesticides from penetrating to the edible food. Some of the fruits and vegetables with the lowest pesticide amounts are pineapples, grapefruit, cantaloupe, eggplant, kiwi, avocados, mangoes and papayas. Those with the highest amounts of pesticides typically include apples, berries, grapes, spinach, celery, potatoes and peaches. A conscientious consumer can search online for the "Dirty Dozen" and the "Clean Fifteen" for a listing of the produce with the highest and lowest amounts of harmful pesticides. Carry this list to the grocery store with you when you shop to assist you in making healthy food choices.

Food products labeled "Natural" or "All Natural", do not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives, however, they may contain chemicals, growth hormones or antibiotics. There is much more leeway in the "Natural" or "All Natural" labels. They may not be regulated and the advertising claims can sometimes be questionable. Generally speaking, the longer the ingredient list the greater the chance of unhealthy additives. Manufacturers often list chemicals by an abbreviated name, sometimes to save space on the label, but sometimes as a ploy to disguise an ingredient that may be considered unacceptable by some shoppers.

 The labels "Free Range" or "Cage Free" refer to animals being allowed to humanely roam freely in a large open outdoor area rather than being confined to a cage or small pen in a barn for the span of their lives. These labels are not subject to USDA guidelines, inspections or certification. Although most farmers act with honesty and integrity when labeling their products, there are unscrupulous livestock farmers who will keep their animals confined without cages in very crowded pens that limit their movement and claim the "Cage Free" designation. The "Grass Fed" label designates livestock animals that have access to open fields and ranges and are fed by grazing rather than livestock raised in a crowded feedlot and fed a diet of mostly corn and soy based grains.

The Nutrition Facts panel provides a wealth of information including suggested serving sizes, calorie and fat counts, vitamins, minerals and the percentage of the recommended nutritional daily allowance the product contains. This is an excellent tool to use to compare the nutritional value between products. Be careful though, calorie and fat counts can be misleading without checking the serving size. One box of cereal prominently advertising low fat and low calorie counts listed the serving size as ¼ cup, when one cup was a more realistic serving size.

According to The Washington Post on February 27, 2014, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner, Margaret A. Hamburg, announced a proposed rule for revised nutrition labels. The proposed changes will help consumers who want to better understand what’s in the food they’re feeding their families, but were often confused by the complicated labels. The new labels, when approved, are expected to include more prominent calorie counts, sugar content and more realistic serving sizes.

Staying healthy is important to all of us. Spending our money wisely for the freshest and most nutritious food keeps us and our families healthy and financially responsible. Taking the time to understand and read food labels carefully and know what is in the food you are purchasing is a worthwhile investment that pays dividends in the form of better health.