Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Food Labels
Your Guide to Food Packaging and Labels
Have you ever walked into the grocery store and wondered what all of the different labels on your food packages really mean? It can be difficult to navigate your way through the store to healthy products when you are unsure of what all the different labels, certifications, and names are really implying. The purpose of this post is to try and help clarify some common terms and labels associated with different foods that you might see at your local grocery store. There are many different types of foods that are labeled in many different ways. I believe that these are some of the more common food terms seen lately, and that you might be wondering what exactly they mean for your health.
Organic – Organically grown food is raised and processed without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. This means that organic meats come from animals that have not been fed antibiotics or growth hormones. The lack of chemicals in the diets of these animals and the lack of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on crops translates to a lack of harmful chemicals in your diet as well. The environmentally conscious consumer can rest assured when buying organic products, knowing that they have been derived with as minimal of an impact as possible to Mother Earth. A further benefit is that organic food is often fresher, since it is produced without preservatives, and tends to be locally grown and sourced.
Natural – The labeling of “natural products” is not regulated by government agencies in the United States. However, the FDA requires that the labeling of products be truthful and not misleading to buyers. It is generally accepted that products labeled as natural are minimally processed, and do not contain artificial or synthetically produced ingredients. Nevertheless, since there is a lack of guidelines on what truly constitutes goods labeled as natural, you should still take caution to carefully read the ingredients and understand the production method.
Cage Free/Free Range – Both are food terms that you most commonly see associated with eggs and egg products. Cage free eggs are collected from chickens that have not been raised in a cage. Instead, cage free eggs are most typically collected from chickens that have free roam of a “chicken house”. In this house, the birds are free to move around as they please. The term free range expands on this concept. Generally, free range chickens are kept in similar uncaged housing as cage free birds, but they are also allowed access to the outdoors for part of the day. When it comes down to the egg, the nutritional content will still be the same as an egg laid by any other chicken, be it caged, cage free, or free roaming. However, both cage free and free range chickens are more able to engage in natural chicken behavior such as walking, foraging, nesting, and spreading their wings. Chickens that are caged would not be able to do any of this. By purchasing cage free/ free range eggs, you are supporting the more humane and ethical treatment of the chickens that have produced them.
Grass Fed – When you see the term grass fed on food packaging it is usually on a meat product. A grass fed animal is one who’s diet consisted primarily of grasses (such as bluegrass, ryegrass, timothy grass, etc.) and other grass like plants (such as clover and alfalfa). This differs in relation to conventional meats because those animals are usually fed a less natural diet compared to what they would eat in the wild. Conventionally fed animals can be given a mixture of any number of products including corn, hay, soy products, grains, and pulps. Grass fed meats tend to be more nutritious and better for your body since those animals themselves were fed a healthier diet.
Free (sugar, dairy, fat, calorie) – When you see something that is labeled as “free”, it is referring to that food not containing something. Typically foods are labeled as free of sugar, dairy, fat, calories, cholesterol, etc. Foods that are free of a certain thing can be beneficial for somebody looking to cut that specific dietary component out of their routine. For example: dairy free edibles would be advantageous for somebody who is lactose intolerant. Similarly, sugar free foods could be valuable for a person who is diabetic. However, it should also be noted that just because a food is free of something that may be perceived as being unhealthy, that food is not necessarily any healthier. Sugar free products often times contain sugar substitutes that in their own way can be harmful to your wellness. Fat free products are more highly processed than their fat containing counter parts. The fat has to be removed from the food that would in its natural state contain fat. Whenever you’re shopping for produce that is labeled “free” of something, be sure to double to check the ingredients to ensure that one thing is not being replaced with something just as detrimental or even worse for your wellbeing.
Gluten Free – Scientifically speaking, gluten is a protein that can be found in plants like wheat, rye, and barley. The gluten protein helps these grains to maintain their shape and to stick together. When these plants are converted into foods, we end up consuming the gluten protein as well. However, some people may inherently have gluten sensitives or Celiac disease, where their digestive systems are disrupted by the consumption of gluten. Those of us following a paleo lifestyle may also choose to eat gluten free products. In other words, gluten free labeled products are those products that either naturally do not contain the gluten protein or a product where the ingredients have been reformulated to not contain gluten (such as gluten free bread or pasta). In general, it is easier for your digestive system to consume gluten free foods and it is better for your overall wellbeing.
Farm Raised/ Wild Caught – These two expressions generally refer to the method of collection/growth for fish and seafood products. When purchasing seafood it either is collected straight from the ocean, where it is has lived and grown in the wild. The other option is seafood that has been “farm raised” specifically for your consumption. Farm raised seafood is routinely cultivated in cages or large tanks within oceans, bays, lakes, and rivers. Wild caught fish can be captured from their habitats in a number of different methods. When it comes to having a meal of farm raised seafood versus a meal of wild caught seafood, there are positives and negatives to both. Farm raised fish tends to be cheaper to the consumer and does not have an impact on the food chain from which they would be removed from in nature. However, farm raised fish can be fed antibiotics, hormones, and diets of corn or soy which is then passed on to you, the consumer. Fish farms can also negatively impact the water they are in by directly releasing excess amounts of nutrients and waste. Wild caught fish are beneficial in that they are more natural and are leaner. Most people also claim that the taste and appearance of wild caught fish is more appealing. The con to eating wild fish is that fishing is burdensome on the natural environment, and tends to be more expensive. You also have to consider the accumulation of mercury present in larger species of wild fish.
Expeller Pressed/ Cold Pressed – I put these terms in here because I have been seeing them often on products such as oils and juices. Expeller pressing, is a chemical free process, where a product is squeezed in a mechanical press for its juices or oils. Cold pressing is very similar to expeller pressing except that it is a temperature controlled process. The benefit of cold pressing an oil or juice is that the heat produced by the friction of squeezing is reduced. This means that the freshness and flavor of the product is unaltered by high temperatures that can occur with friction of extracting juices and oils.
Non-GMO – The term “GMO” stands for genetically modified organism. GMO foods then are genetically engineered plants and animals who’s DNA has been altered. The purpose of producing genetically altered plants and animals is to enhance beneficial qualities in their genes, such as resistance to diseases, enhanced nutrition, or quicker growing time. In the United States, genetically modified foods do not have to be labeled so it can be difficult for consumers to tell whether or not they are eating these products. The most common genetically modified plant and animal commodities you might encounter are soybeans, corn, cotton, milk, and cooking oils. A shopper who is then looking to avoid these foods might search out goods that are Non-GMO Project verified and labeled. This means that the product has gone through a verification process with the Non-GMO Project group and was not found to contain any genetically modified materials.
It is my hope that by clarifying some of these commonly found labels on food products that you will be more able to make informed and health conscious decisions at your local grocery store. It is always important to keep in mind the production method and origin of your foods while shopping.