Making Sense of Misleading Food Labels
With so many misleading food labels on shelves today, I often hear how frustrating it is to make sense of them, know which to trust, and what to choose. I'm hoping I can not only help you know what each means below, but that I can also help you know the best choices to make (for your health and your budget).
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What It Means: Added vitamins simply means they've tried increased the nutritional value (or perceived nutritional value) of the food by added in vitamins and nutrients. This was a common response to "nutritionism", seen as an incomplete view to health and wellness by breaking foods done from their whole natural form into the nutrients and vitamins we assume is all we need.
What It Doesn't Guarantee: Added vitamins do not guarantee the source of the vitamins, whether they are natural or not, or even digestible (some synthetic vitamins are not well-absorbed by some).
What to Look For Instead: When understanding misleading food labels, look for foods that are "whole", which means unprocessed and generally recognizable. They will naturally provide all the nutrients you need. In my opinion, if a food has to add nutrients that tells me it wasn't a whole food and wasn't healthy enough to stand alone. Real food doesn't need help in being healthy.
Antibiotic-Free, Raised without Antibiotics
What This Means: This means that any animal product came from an animal not treated with an antibiotic. Depending on the terminology, it may mean they haven't been treated without the past 90-120 days or for their entire lifetime.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: These misleading food labels don't guarantee that the animal didn't receive other medications, hormones, or appetite enhancers. It doesn't guarantee the humane treatment of the animal, or whether it was fed an organic and biologically appropriate diet.
What to Look For Instead: A local farmer that aligns with your values is always our first choice. Certified organic is our second. Antibiotic-free is our third.
What This Means: This is one of those misleading food labels you'll find with chicken and eggs. It simply means the chickens were not raised in the industry standard cage (about one square foot space or less). They were able to walk around during their lifetime.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: Being able to walk around does not guarantee they had a healthy or humane environment. They could've still be squeezed into a large building together (an environment that causes great stress to chickens, increases likelihood of illness or injury), likely had their beaks cut off to avoid them fighting with other chickens, and does not guarantee they consumed an organic and biologically-appropriate diet.
What to Look For Instead: A farmer. Seriously, get to know your chickens, raise them yourself, find a friend who raises them, or a nearby farm where you know they are raised humanely and ethically. If you don't have that choice right now, choose organic instead. If my only option were cage-free, I'd just go without eggs.
What This Means: Misleading food labels like these make me laugh and feel frustrated at the same time. Farm-raised means exactly SQUAT. Every single animal is raised on a farm. Even factory farms are still farms. This seems like a blatant attempt to take advantage of consumers by offering a pretty term to people who haven't yet learned it means nothing.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: This doesn't guarantee anything, except maybe a company with a sleazy ad agency.
What to Look For Instead: Get to know your local farmers. Look for a farmer's market in your area, and if you have no other choice, choose Certified Organic or Certified Non-GMO to at least get some sort of guarantee of what you're getting.
What This Means: This cold mean several things: either that the food is naturally fat-free free, that all fats have been removed (making it no longer a whole food), or that no extra fats were added. There could be negligible amounts of fat, but this is usually noted with an asterisk (*).
What This Doesn't Guarantee: These misleading food labels don't guarantee you're getting a whole food with the necessary fats required by our body. It doesn't guarantee that the food was minimally processed (likely means it was highly processed if fats were removed), or that it's organic, non-GMO, or natural.
What to Look For Instead: Look for whole foods, that are not processed or very minimally processed. Foods that have very few, and easily pronounceable ingredients is a good place to start. Fruits and veggies, and anything that IS an ingredient (versus HAS an ingredient) is even better.
What This Means: This is similar to "Added Vitamins" above. It means some nutritional substance has been added to increase the perceived value of the product.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: This does not guarantee it's a whole food, that it is fortified from natural sources of vitamins or nutrients, or that the other ingredients are natural, organic, or healthy for you.
What to Look For Instead: Search out whole foods with few ingredients that are naturally healthy and do not need fortification. In my opinion, if a food needs fortification it's not my healthiest choice to begin with.
What This Means: This is another of those misleading food labels which offers a modicum of reassurance. It's usually found on eggs or chicken, but sometimes other animal products. It means the animal is allowed to move "freely" with access to the outdoors.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: These very misleading food labels don't actually guarantee the animal ever makes it outdoors. Many times they are inside a building with a small outdoor "run" attached and a small door in which to access it. It's been found that many animals are so tightly enclosed in this building they never make it far enough to the other side where the door might be. Their outdoor area might also be unsanitary (think: standing in several feet of manure). It offers no guarantee to the health of the animal, its diet (organic, biologically appropriate), the use of antibiotics and hormones, or the humane treatment.
What to Look For Instead: This is a last resort choice; I'd actually choose to go without before I chose this option since it doesn't guarantee much of anything. Again, it's important to know your farmer or have a lot of trust in your grocer (such as Whole Foodslabeling of meat quality and standards).
What This Means: These misleading food labels are usually found on beef, this means that at some point in the animal's life it was allowed to eat a biologically-appropriate diet of grass.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: It does not guarantee that the food was not supplemented with grains (soy and corn), that the animal was antibiotic- or hormone-free, that it was treated humanely it's entire life, or that it was not "grain-finished" (a technique used to make the meat fattier and more aligned with consumer expectations).
What to Look For Instead: Look for 100% grass-fed, grass-finished. Look for a farmer who allows you to visit the farm. And look for an organic label whenever possible to ensure the rest.
What This Means: If this is applied to pork or poultry, it means nothing. Pigs and chickens are not allowed to be raised on hormones. You'll only see this on the label if it's followed by "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones." If this is on beef products (meat or milk), it indicates that hormones have not been administered during the raising of the animal.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: These misleading food labels don't guarantee any animal was raised without antibiotics or other medications. It also doesn't guarantee the animal was raised humanely, fed a biologically-appropriate diet, or raised organically.
What to Look For Instead: It's better than nothing when it comes to dairy and meat, but the best choice is to know the farmer or choose an organically certified product.
What This Means: Generally speaking this means it is coming from your local area or region. This can be one of those misleading food labels, or it can be a term used by a trusted source.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: There are no regulations on what constitutes "local". It could be within 50 miles, 100 miles, or 3 states away. For instance in NV our "local" farmer's market consisted of primarily food from Southern California, about as local as we could get at the time.
What to Look For Instead: Ask where the food is actually from. Decide for yourself what constitutes "local" for you and how far you're willing to see your food travel to get to you.
Natural, All-Natural, 100% Natural
What This Means: There is debate about whether the use of the word "natural" on misleading food labels is even regulated. According to the USDA, "natural" or any derivative of the term must mean it includes no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. The label must explain the use of "natural".
What This Doesn't Guarantee: These are very misleading food labels, because the term "artificial" and the term "minimally processed" are pretty subjective. Some people think high fructose corn syrup is a natural ingredient (often hidden on the ingredient list under the term "other natural ingredients). And "minimally processed" is what I do in my kitchen, not what happens in the factory. Therefore this isn't guaranteeing much. There is no guarantee of non-GMOs, organic ingredients, or even if some of the other ingredients (or even most of them) are natural.
What to Look For Instead: Before you settle for "natural", look to buy the ingredients and make the food at home. Then look for organic or a non-GMO label. And read the labels carefully for anything that might be outside your comfort zone.
Natural Flavors, Natural Colors
What This Means: This should mean no flavors or colors are artificial, nothing fake or lab-created has been added.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: Again, one of the most popular misleading food labels. This doesn't guarantee what "natural" means...animal by-products can be called natural. So can corn syrup. But is GMO corn natural? Are hormonal cows natural? Is highly processed food natural? Are pesticides and herbicides to grow food natural? It's all very subject to opinion.
What to Look For Instead: Read the ingredients carefully. Avoid anything you can't pronounce or known to be a likely GMO product. Choose whole foods that you can prepare at home.
Nitrate-Free, No Nitrates Added
What This Means: I find these to be among the most misleading food labels. You'll almost always find "nitrate-free" to be followed by an asterisk (*) stating "except those naturally occurring". This often means they've added ingredients that are considered natural but have high levels of naturally-occurring nitrates, such as celery powder.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: It doesn't guarantee you're not getting nitrates. It generally only means you're not getting nitrates from an artificial source. This barely matters for any of you that are sensitive to nitrates in the first place (get a lot of headaches from wine or processed meats?).
What to Look For Instead: Look for foods that are unprocessed and naturally nitrate-free. Learn to preserve meat at home by drying, or skip preserving and eat fresher foods (like making chicken in advance for the week to add to sandwiches, instead of "lunch meat"). You're not going to have much luck in the wine department.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: Without a certified label, it may not mean anything as this is not a regulated term yet. With a certification label, it doesn't guarantee that the food is organic or the animals sustainably raised.
What to Look For Instead: Look for that Non-GMO certification. Choose organic when possible to ensure the safety of the ingredients and farming practices and avoid the misleading food labels.
Organic, 100% Organic, Made with Organic Ingredients
What This Means: "100% Organic" means just what it says - no ingredients are non-organic. "Certified Organic" can actually mean up to 5% of the ingredients are not organic. "Made with Organic Ingredients" only means one or more ingredients is organic. (Read specifically about organic food labeling here.)
What This Doesn't Guarantee: This doesn't actually guarantee the health and welfare, humane treatment of, or biologically-appropriate diet of any animals. "Certified" and "Made with" doesn't guarantee that the other ingredients in questions are non-GMO, safe, or natural, making it one of the more misleading food labels.
What to Look For Instead: Search for 100% Organic whenever possible. Know the source of your food when you can and avoid any ingredients that are likely to be GMO (link above).
What This Means: This is still an unregulated term, meaning it could be including on misleading food labels. Generally it means the animal in question was not inside, not in small enclosure, but was actually out on a pasture, you know, grassy land, with access to biologically-appropriate food, access to water and sunshine, and room to truly roam.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: The label doesn't mean anything yet, without trust in who is using the term. It also doesn't guarantee that no hormones, antibiotics, or biologically-inappropriate foods were ever given, or even how much time the animal had on pasture in its lifetime.
What to Look For Instead: Look for this, but only from a reputable source you trust. Don't neglect to find out if the animal was organically and sustainably raised as well, and if at any time it was factory-raised or if it indeed was pastured its entire life.
What This Means: These misleading food labels could mean several things. Usually it means they have added no traditional, white sugar and have usually added an alternative sweetener in its place (such as aspartame, Splenda, or occasionally high fructose corn syrup). Sometimes it means no sweeteners have been added at all (except perhaps those naturally occuring in fruits and juices).
What This Doesn't Guarantee: These misleading food labels don't guarantee that the sweetener added is good for you, or natural (usually the exact opposite is true). It doesn't guarantee that it's not GMO sweetener (very common among sweeteners), that the food itself is natural or whole.
What to Look For Instead: I avoid this altogether. It's almost always a sign of an unhealthy food trying to appeal to consumers by adding a simple, but meaningless health claim. Look for whole foods instead, and avoid these processed foods completely. Try your hand at homemade alternatives or choose organic, or at least products with very few and simple ingredients that you can pronounce.
What This Means: These are the misleading food labels that make me frustrated. It does come with a modicum of reassurance that at least the animal is not being fed by-products of other animals. But many animals this is claimed for are not vegetarian, meaning the animal may be avoiding unhealthy animal food sources, but aren't getting the health, biologically-appropriate foods it needs to be healthy itself. This is a guarantee that the animal was fed grains (often GMO corn and soy) and it may even be a clue that the animal was raised indoors, so as to guarantee they weren't scavenging for insects (such as in the case of chickens natural behavior).
What This Doesn't Guarantee: These misleading food labels don't guarantee that the food was natural, biologically-appropriate, or organic/non-GMO. It doesn't guarantee that the animals were raised in a humane environment (outside of cages, fresh air, plenty of space, not physically altered - such as the cutting of beaks). It doesn't guarantee the health of the food or the animal.
What to Look For Instead: Skip this one. It really doesn't mean much at all. Look for a source you can trust, or a certified organic label.
What This Means: This means the entire grain was used (cereal germ, endosperm, and bran), instead of a portion of it (endosperm). There is such a long and convoluted definition of what is considered whole and what isn't in terms of the percentages of each part of the grain. Wikipedia has a fuller definition.
What This Doesn't Guarantee: These misleading food labels don't guarantee a whole food, a natural product, or that the ingredients are highly processed or modified in some way. It doesn't guarantee sustainable farming or processing practices, non-GMO sources, or much of anything. It's a step above "wheat flour", but only a step.
What to Look For Instead: Look at the ingredients for a listing of "whole wheat", "whole oats", etc. The best option is to make your own products at home or choose an organic label or a product from a company you trust.
Did I miss any misleading food labels you'd like me to cover? Let me know by emailing me here!
How to Know What to Choose
Much of making sense of misleading food labels is going to be a personal decision. You'll need to know for yourself what foods you are comfortable eating (and why), and which you aren't, and make the best choice possible based on what is available to you and what aligns with your values.
For us there are certain things we will compromise on if we have no better alternative, and there are certain things we won't ever compromise on. We'll go without eggs or meat if we can't find high-quality, clean meats or change our meal plans to ensure we're getting Non-GMO fruits and veggies if organic isn't available.
Your best bet is to know the source of your food. Your local farmer's market is a great place to start. Growing your own is incredibly valuable (make sure you use non-GMO seeds or starters). Add more vegetarian meals to your diet, and just do the very best you can.
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