Breaking Down Nutritional Marketing and Food Label Buzzwords

Wouldn’t it be amazing if nutrition labels told you exactly what you want to know. Like, how am I going to feel after I eat this? And what do all these marketing terms actually mean for me?
Trying to make informed, healthy decisions can nearly make you loose your appetite in today’s world of “eat this, not that” grocery shopping. The marketing hype can be confusing and misleading. There are a few common health food buzzwords that marketers use to attract you to their “healthy” products.
Understanding fact from fiction can help you make more healthful purchases. Here’s a look into some of the most common health food label standards:
Natural – According to the FDA, Natural foods prohibit the use of artificial or synthetic ingredients, chemical preservatives and processes that would include fundamentally altering or separating the raw product to make it unsafe for human consumption.
Good in theory, but in practice we lack sufficient regulation and standardization around the term. Sometimes, it’s hard to qualify exactly what is, or isn’t, safe for human consumption. Make it a best practice to dig a little deeper – read the whole label. Look for indications that it contains pesticides, genetically modified ingredients, high fructose corn syrup or is heavily processed.
Note: for “naturally raised” livestock and meat derived from livestock, the FDA requires “(1) no growth promotants (hormones) were administered to the animals; (2) no antibiotics (other than ionophores used to prevent parasitism) were administered to the animal; and (3) no animal by-products were fed to the animals” (Agricultural Marketing Service, 2009). Equally difficult to regulate, but the standards exist.
Free-Range (Eggs) – Sigh. There are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of “some degree of outdoor access,” the Free-Range label mandates. There are no restrictions on the chicken’s diets (including growth-hormone regulations), and malicious animal treatment (including starvation and overpopulation) is not prohibited. Nor is there a third party audit system in place to govern “free-range” practices. So, unfortunately, free-range doesn’t mean much.
Cage-Free (Eggs) – Just as the term suggests, hens are uncaged. As with the Free Range label, Cage Free does not require other safe governing practices, and also disregards the diets and behavior of the hens outside of their cages. Reportedly, the hens “can spread their wings,” but no third party audit system exists to substantiate the claims.
However, The Humane Society offers a list and definition of independent Third-Party Certifiers to look for when available. Click here if interested in learning more.
Gluten-Free – Without gluten. That’s it. Gluten-free is a hot trend right now on food labels – and for good reason. If you suffer form celiac disease or have a gluten intolerance, wheat gluten can cause inflammatory reactions in the body. The good news is, if you do have a gluten sensitivity, your options for alternative flours and grains have increased about five-fold in the past five years. Quinoa, brown/black rice, legumes, almond and coconut can serve as healthy alternatives. But – I know I have to say it – GF does NOT stand for 100% Good For You. Gluten-free cupcakes are not necessarily healthy alternatives to regular cupcakes. GF does not mean sugar-free, vegan, organic, or even healthy. Gluten is often substituted for white rice flour, GMO-corn ingredients, or increased added sugars. Read your labels. Indulge as is appropriate for you, but don’t make the mistake of thinking gluten-free potato chips are anything to write home about.
(Certified) Organic – Products labeled USDA Organic contain at least 95% organic ingredients and comply with the production and handling standards established by the USDA, listed here. The standards might not be perfect, but they are strict, and the Organic stamp ensures the least amount of harmful pesticides and production practices that can otherwise show up on your plate. See the chart above for which produce options tend to be best when grown organically.
Local – Typically, local farmers use more biodiverse, sustainable practices with livestock and produce growth, if only due to the fact that the food doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles to land on your table. Organic standards are often hard to meet for small farmers, but many practice according to the guidelines. Without standardization of “local” procedure, a best practice here is to chat with your suppliers directly at your farmer’s market. (list/link here?) Remember, food is energy, so the closer you can get to its source, the more energy the food offers in nutrients is bound to retain.
Non-GMO – Literally, Non-Genetically Modified Organisms. Similar to the National Organic Program, the Non-GMO Project prohibits genetic engineering of foods through rigid “testing of risk ingredients.” Think of the Non-GMO label as a complement, or supplement, to the Organic label. The Non-GMO Project also verifies conventional farming practices, so if you can’t buy Organic, look for the Non-GMO label to ensure your food is just that – real, whole food.
“We really don’t know the consequences of GMO foods,” Dr. Hehmeyer, Aligned Modern Health Functional Nutritionist, notes. Risks of GMO foods could an increased risk of heart disease, heightened exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens, or they could not. Right now, Dr. Hehmeyer laments, “We’re the lab rats.”
Why are these labels important? Remember, food is best absorbed by our bodies in its most natural form. Food is energy and important information for our body. Tampering with our food tampers with the way our bodies can process and use those vital nutrients, at minimum. The explanations aren’t designed to scare you – precisely the opposite! Knowledge is power. Arm yourself with the above information and shop your way to a healthier, cleaner, leaner lifestyle.