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Don’t Be Fooled by Food Labels

Food Ingredients, Food Regulations and Policy

Don’t Be Fooled by Food Labels

The Dirt:

There are so many food labels today: Organic, Grassfed, No Hormones or Antibiotics added, Non-GMO, Certified Humane…the list goes on. Ever wonder what all those food labels really mean? Well, we’re here to help you understand them and to know when you’re being fooled!

Here I am at Costco, getting far too many things for my household of four. As I try to navigate my unwieldy cart around, I see a new product – avocado oil. Apparently, this oil has a higher smoke point for cooking AND has healthy fats! But, wait…look at all these labels: organic, non-GMO, all natural, gluten free…what??? Avocados have gluten!?

It happens to all of us – we’re hit with a barrage of food labels every time we go grocery shopping. Many of us assume the more labels, the better the product…but you’d be mistaken. Food companies are in a constant battle to prove superiority of their products over the competitors—even at the expense of the truth. Take a look at our label guide to know when a label is meaningful and when you’re just throwing away money.

ORGANIC

What it means:

  • USDA organic products have strict production and labeling requirements. These requirements demand that approved food items are produced using no genetic engineering or ionizing radiation and with natural pesticides and fertilizers. Organic products are overseen by authorized personnel of the USDA National Organic Program.

Don’t be fooled:

  • Several USDA-certified organic labels exist, so just because you see “organic” in the label, don’t assume the entire product is organic. For food products claiming “100% Organic”, you can be assured of just that. However, food products with simply “Organic” are made with at least 95% organic products. Lastly, the label, “Made with Organic Ingredients”, indicates that at least 70% of the product is organic.

  • Organic foods have pesticides. Many consumers assume organic means zero pesticides, when in fact, organic foods can be treated with pesticides from the USDA’s approved list. Also, the USDA reports that pesticide residues are found on both organic and conventional crops alike in its Pesticide Data Program, but all crops are held to regulations governing safe consumption levels.

CERTIFIED HUMANE

What it means:

  • When it comes to treating livestock humanely, the USDA requires meat, dairy and egg producers to submit applications and receive permission before using terms like “humanely raised” or “raised with care” on packages. However, in the absence of conducting regular inspections, several organizations created more stringent criteria for animal welfare.

  • Third-party humane-certifying organizations strive to improve the lives of farm animals in food production. Producers and facilities must meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment to be issued certification, and they undergo regular verification. The Humane Farm Animal Care is the leading non-profit certification organization issuing the “Certified Humane” label, but similar organizations exist with slightly different labels, such as Animal Welfare Certified and Animal Welfare Approved.

Don’t be fooled:

  • Producers don’t need to do anything after receiving permission from the USDA to include “humanely raised” on their packaging, as the USDA does not perform onsite inspections for this purpose. So if this is really important to you, then stick with a third-party humane verifier.

GRASSFED

What it means:

  • “Grass-fed” is a term used on cow, sheep and goat products. It indicates that the animals’ diet is primarily comprised of grass, hay, and forage in a pasture. To claim “grassfed”, the cows must have access to a pasture during most of its life, but feedlots are allowed in the months before harvesting. This term is no longer monitored by the USDA. 

  • However, products with the American Grassfed label label indicate that the cows, sheep and goats had continuous access to pasture and a diet of 100% forage. Cage confinement, hormones and all antibiotics are expressly prohibited by the organization.

Don’t be fooled:

NON-GMO

Before we start with the GMO conversation, remember that there are only 10 GMO crops currently approved for consumption in the U.S.: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets. That’s it. No GMO wheat, strawberries, tomatoes, rice, chickens, etc. And, by the way, GMO crops are completely safe for consumption: they are the most thoroughly-tested products in our food system and have the same nutritional profile as their non-GMO counterparts. And lastly, the term, “non-GMO”, is not regulated by the FDA. Ok, now that we have that down, let’s continue.

What it means:

  • When you see food products with a “non-GMO” label at the grocery store, it means one of two things:

      • The first and acceptable use of the label is that the food product is made from a crop with a GMO counterpart and the producer chose to use the non-GMO version. For instance, tortilla corn chips made from non-GMO corn.

      • The second and less acceptable use of the label is when it’s used on products with no GMO alternative: think avocados, strawberry jam, and hummus.

Don’t be fooled:

  • When companies slap a “non-GMO” label on foods with no GMO counterpart, they’re creating unnecessary fear among consumers. They’re probably ripping you off, too!

  • The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization, provides companies with a non-GMO “verification” program to make their products more appealing to customers. However, the Non-GMO Project will “verify” products containing crops with no GMO alternative and deliver their stamp of approval on items like avocado oil, salt, and even water!

      • If avoiding GMOs is important to you, you can look for the logo on products with a GMO counterpart; otherwise you’re just paying more for a fancy logo.

  • Another note for these products: organic products certified by the USDA (and with the USDA logo) will always be non-GMO products. However, non-GMO products are not necessarily organic.

CAGE FREE & FREE RANGE

What it means:

  • Despite the humanitarian appeal, these labels don’t say much. With both “cage free” and “free range”, cages are prohibited. However, the hens can still be raised in an enclosed space. The added benefit of “free range” is that the animals have access to the outdoors.

Don’t be fooled:

NO ADDED HORMONES/rBGH/rBST

What it means:

  • Beef and sheep producers sometimes administer hormones to help their livestock grow more quickly, thus entering the meat market earlier in their lives. Dairy cow producers can also add hormones, like rBST or rBGH, to help their cows produce more milk, but fewer producers practice this now. Labels showing “no hormones added” or “no hormones administered” are allowed if these producers can prove that no hormones were used during the animal’s life.

Don’t be fooled:

NO ANTIBIOTICS ADDED

What it means:

  • Antibiotics are used when livestock are unwell or confined to close quarters, where illness can quickly spread. So the USDA approves the labels, “No antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics added” and “raised without antibiotics”, if producers can prove that antibiotics were not administered at any point. The “antibiotic-free” label is not allowed by the USDA, as antibiotic residue testing technology can’t verify if the animal ever received antibiotics. Furthermore, the FDA has strict withdrawal guidelines that require all livestock to be clear of any antibiotic residue before it is harvested.

Don’t be fooled:

GLUTEN FREE

What it means:

  • This label is seemingly everywhere now! Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in cereal grains, like wheat, barley and rye, so this label informs those with a gluten allergy or celiac disease that the product is safe for their consumption.

Don’t be fooled:

  • This label is now being used on products that don’t normally include cereal grains (think sugar, rice and corn products), thus becoming another marketing gimmick.

  • Also, know that gluten-free products are not inherently healthier, as gluten-free substitutes may contain other additives and are not typically enriched with additional nutrients. In fact, many gluten-free products are higher in saturated fat and sugar.

NATURAL

 

Don’t be fooled:

Here’s a quick reference chart for your next grocery run:

Click here to download chart

 

The Bottom Line:

Take a moment to closely examine your food when in the grocery store. See if all those labels make sense...or if you’re falling prey to marketing gimmicks and misinformation. By becoming a more knowledgeable consumer, you’re one step closer to better understanding our food system.

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