Friday, March 6, 2015

Labels, Labels, Labels!

Pick up most any food product in your local supermarket and you'll more than likely be bombarded by catch phrases, slogans, and labels. The labels can be confusing. The USDA and FDA are responsible for many of these terms and labels. However, many are engineered by the food industry to help promote and sell their products. They can look and sound very official. The problem is that often the public can't tell fact from fiction and even if they do recognize the officially USDA or FDA regulated terms and labels, they many not fully understand what these labels mean. Trying to buy healthy products for your family sometimes feels like a crapshoot.

I read a lot of professional journals and one of my favorite is IDEA Fitness Journal published by the IDEA Health & Fitness Association. Each year they publish an issue that's focused on nutrition. The March 2015 issue contains an awesome article titled "What you don't know about food labeling could undermine your health" written by Megan Senger. Most of the article presents information on food labeling from experts Brian Wansink, PhD, a marketing professor and behavioral economist expert at Cornell University in NY state who directs the university's Food and Brand Lab and Yoni Freedhoff, MD, a physician, professor, and weight loss specialist in Ottawa, Ontario.

Senger states that the food industry is one of the top advertisers in the U.S. (Chandon & Wansink 2013). $116 billion was spent  marketing healthy fruits and veggies in 2012. 4.6 billion was spent marketing fast food. That's a lot of money. The food industry is using healthy claims to help sell their foods. Unfortunately due to the creative, inventive, and confusing "healthy" terminology, consumers aren't always purchasing exactly what they think they're purchasing.

Below you'll find several USDA regulated terms  that I pulled from Senger's article. You'll also find her explanation of each term so that the next time you're at the grocery store you'll be better prepared to separate the fact from fiction.

Natural: Under FDA jurisdiction (produce and many packaged foods), "natural" and "all-natural" are meaningless. You need to be careful and really inspect  these products to make sure it supports good health. Under USDA jurisdiction (animal products) "natural" has a little more meaning. These products must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. But, be careful, because a natural label does not include any standards on farm practices and does not require the "prudent use of antibiotics" nor does it bar the use of growth hormones.

Naturally Raised: This is a "voluntary standard" which indicates that livestock used for meat have been raised entirely without growth promotants and antibiotics and have never been fed animal byproducts. However this term does not address animal welfare or the use of eco-friendly farm practices.

Organic: Irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms cannot be used on crops that bear the USDA Organic seal. The use of "organic" is regulated on most U.S. foods, however not for seafood. the U.S. has no organic standards for "aquaculture." For livestock this seal ensures that producers have met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors. Several various of the label can be used such as " 100% Organic" (meaning all ingredients and processing aids must be organic); "Organic" (meaning it contains 95% or more organic ingredients) and "Made with Organic..." (meaning at least 70% of the ingredients are organic).

Low-Fat: Foods with this label must not have more than 3g of fat per serving. Note: Senger points out that this may not amount to much because low-fat products are on average only 11% lower in calories than the regular versions. The removed fat is often replaced with sugar.

Fat-Free: Foods with this label must have less than .5g of fat per serving.

Reduced-Fat: Foods with this label must have at least 25% less fat than the regular versions of those foods, "Reduced" is only relative to the original product of comparison not to any healthful standard.

Gluten-Free: To meet the FDA guidelines and carry the "gluten-free", "no gluten", "free of gluten", or "without gluten" label, a food product's gluten content must be less than 20 parts per million. Senger states in the article that this is a very "trendy" term and nutritional needs can vary a great deal from person to person and to keep in mind that a gluten-free product by no means equates to a healthier choice.

Grass-Fed: This term applies to ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep that were only fed mother's milk and forage (eating grazed or stored hay, grass, or other greens). These animals must have access to pasture during the growing season. If the "USDA Process Verified" shield accompanies a grass-fed label, this means USDA inspectors have verified the claim. If there is not a process verified shield, then it has not. Note: Grass-Fed does not indicate any limitations have been put on the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. It also does not indicate year-round access to pasture. Be careful of similar labels and terminology such as "grass-finished" and "green-fed." These are not regulated terms.

Free-Range: If you see this USDA regulated label, it means that a poultry flock was provided shelter and unlimited access to food, fresh water, and access to the outdoors throughout the production cycle. However, the quality or size of the outside area and duration of outdoor access are not specified. Note: "Fee-Roaming" is not a regulated label.

Cage-Free: This label means that a flock could freely roam in an indoor or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during the production cycle. This label does not explain if the flock had any outdoor access or if they were raised in overcrowded conditions.

No Antibiotics Added: This USDA-regulated term may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if the producer provides sufficient supporting documentation, but there is no system in place to verify a claim of this type. Note: The term "antibiotic-free" has no regulatory definition.

No Hormones Administered: This USDA term applies to beef and dairy products. This claim is allowed if the producer provides sufficient documentation that no hormones have been used in raising the animals. Note: The terms "hormone-free" and "no hormones" are not permitted on the labels of beef, pork, or poultry products since animal proteins contain naturally occurring hormones regardless of production methods. 

Senger's full article can be found in the March 2015 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. The full article contains more comprehensive information on the above data and it also provides excellent information on  food marketing, how branding affects enjoyment, the "health halo" effect, neurological responses to food marketing, labeling regulations and limitations, "third-Party Labels", and other unregulated food marketing terms. Sounds technical, but it's a great read.

No comments: