These days, it seems our food is so low-quality that producers have to tell consumers what isn’t in a carton of milk or box of crackers—trans-fats, GMOs, hormones—in order to get it off the shelves. What’s more, it seems like every other product is “all-natural” and “whole grain,” despite a never ending ingredient list that reads more like a chemical equation rather than the makings of breakfast. When I saw that the artificial neon rainbow known as Trix cereal is now “whole grain guaranteed,” I knew that something didn’t quite add up.
With trends and ingredients changing almost daily, it’s easy to get lost in all of the marketing jargon. How many of us know the standards behind common terms like “reduced fat” and “cage-free,” or the subtle difference between “multigrain” and “whole grain”? Advertisers count on consumer ignorance to sell their products, but a little research into some of the most common supermarket buzzwords reveals there’s more to these labels than meets the eye.
1. Whole Grain
The FDA dictates that any product labeled thusly must have all parts of the grain kernel—the bran, germ, and endosperm—intact. Traditional examples include rolled oats, whole-wheat flour, and brown rice. Trix can be labeled whole grain because it includes the entire corn kernel in its ingredients, even though it also contains corn syrup and artificial dyes. Whole grains are turned into refined carbs (such as white rice or white bread) when the germ and bran are removed from the grain, robbing it of fiber, iron, and other healthy attributes.
Most associate this with “whole wheat” or “whole grain,” but it just means a bunch of grains have been included, and they’re not necessarily whole grain. The product could still contain refined grains, so pay attention to ingredient lists. For example, Milton’s Multi-Grain bread lists “enriched flour” as its first ingredient, which still means refined white flour. Likewise, enriched flour is the primary ingredient in Keebler Multigrain Bistro crackers (and partially hydrogenated oil comes in second!).
There is no legal meaning for the term “cage-free.” The Web site Sustainable Table defines it as “birds raised without cages,” but that doesn’t speak to the conditions that the birds were actually raised in, like whether it included outdoor access or the ability to mill about freely.
Many confuse cage-free with free-range, but the latter only means that the animals had the demonstrated ability to go outdoors. The USDA mandates that there must be a door and that it needs to be at least somewhat open to give the poultry (there aren’t regulations for pigs or cows yet) the option to step outside. How much time is spent outdoors is left up to the chicken. However, the outside conditions (not always a grassy field, mind you) are left up to the producers.
5. All Natural/100 Percent Natural
There are no FDA standards that control the use of this term. That’s why you see it on practically every item on the supermarket shelves. Products such as Nature Valley granola bars and 7-Up have the “natural” label and still contain processed ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.
6. No Sugar Added
This doesn’t mean that the product is devoid of sugar—it means that it wasn’t added during processing. If the product naturally contains sugar (applesauce or jams, for example), it can still have this label. Same goes for the “no salt added” label. If the product contains absolutely no sugar, it can be labeled “sugar-free.”
7. Sodium Nitrite/Nitrate-Free
Sodium nitrite and nitrate are preservatives often found in deli meats, sausages, SPAM, and other processed meats. They’re added to enhance the meat’s color and prevent the growth of bacteria that could cause botulism. However, they have also been linked to cancer and are a common trigger for headaches.
8. Natural Flavors
The Code of Federal Regulations defines natural flavors as anything extracted from fruit, vegetable, plant, bark, seafood, dairy, and so forth. Vegetarians and vegans need to be especially wary of this buzzword because it could indicate the use of animal products. It’s a blanketing term that hides certain ingredients and makes it seem more healthful than it really is. According to a Washington Post article, Imitation Vanilla Flavor is labeled as such when the flavor compound (vanillan) is made in the lab, but when it’s made by a fermentation process (because fermentation is a “natural” process), it can be labeled as Natural Vanilla Flavor, even though the compounds are the exact same. Neither route produces Pure Vanilla Extract, where the flavor comes from the bean.
9. Contains Probiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria that occur naturally in our guts and in foods like yogurt and soy. They keep our digestive tracts healthy by promoting the growth of good bacteria. When the health benefits of probiotics became well known, marketers jumped on the trend and put this label all over their packaging.
10. No GMOs
GMOS, or genetically modified organisms, refer to crops (usually cotton, corn, soy, and canola) that have been genetically engineered to thrive in certain climates and to be disease-resistant. While the negative side effects of GMO consumption haven’t been proven, it’s been linked to heightened allergic reactions and lowered immunity.
11. High Fiber
To be designated as “high fiber,” the product has to have at least five grams of fiber in every serving.
12. Reduced _______
The FDA dictates that “reduced” foods must have 25 percent less of the specified item, such as calories, fat, sugar, or salt, compared to a regular version of the food. Keep in mind that reducing a particular nutrient, such as fat, often means a higher content of salt or sugar for flavor purposes.
Superfoods are foods widely considered nutrient powerhouses and touted for their health benefits. There isn’t a set definition and the list continues to grow as we discover more about what we eat. Blueberries, sweet potatoes, spinach, oats, and nuts like almonds and walnuts are often given this label.
14. Rich in Antioxidants
Antioxidants are agents that protect the body from the degenerative effects of free radicals. Fruits and vegetables contain a great deal of these beneficial chemical compounds, as do dark chocolate and beans.
15. Omega-3s Added
Ever since omega-3s and omega-6s became popular buzzwords among health-conscious consumers, products fortified with the omegas—particularly eggs, which are produced by giving chickens a diet rich in flax or fish oil—have been popping up all over grocery stores. The amount of omegas, essential fatty acids that the body cannot synthesize, vary based on the product, but few include the daily recommended dose in a serving.
16. Trans-Fat Free
As the public became increasingly aware of the overwhelming presence of hydrogenated oils (otherwise known as trans fats) in their food and the serious health risks, such as heart disease and diabetes, the government was put under pressure to act. In January 2006, the government mandated that products with trans fats be labeled accordingly. However, if they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, they can still carry the “trans-fat free” label. The best way to figure out whether a product is truly devoid of trans fats is to look for hydrogenated oils in the ingredients.
Purchasing something for the label alone is never a good idea. After all, Hot Pockets boasts “7 Essential Vitamins and Minerals, 0g Trans Fats” on the front of its box in big, bold letters. Flip the box around and you’re greeted with the hundred other scary-sounding ingredients (including partially hydrogenated oils) you’re ingesting along with those vitamins and minerals. Clearly we need to look past the label and read the finer print to find out exactly what we’re eating and what it’s doing for (or to) us.
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