Are You Getting Tricked by “Healthy” Food Labels?
It’s that time of year when ghosts and goblins come out to play. But the tricks and treats aren’t just reserved for kids — sometimes they’re staring you right in the face from the grocery aisle.
We’ve talked a lot about Macronutrients on this blog (and if you’re looking for more info, you can find everything you need to know in our Excellence Academy), so you likely have a basic understanding of what the nutritional label on the back of the package can tell you.
But what about those labels on the front of the box? You know the ones I mean — “Organic”, “All-Natural”, “Gluten-Free”, and more.
They seem to be screaming at you as you wander through the grocery store — “Hey! Buy me! I’m obviously HEALTHY, it says so right here on the packaging!!!”
Here’s the thing, though. You have a lot going on. You want to make the healthiest choices possible, but you need to be able to get in and get out. And with your packed schedule, you might not have the time to spend hours researching the nutritional value of everything you put in your grocery cart.
Companies understand that. They know that fancy labels that project an image of “healthy foods” make you much more likely to buy their products, especially when time is limited and you’re making snap decisions.
The truth is that sometimes these labels have more do with slick marketing than genuine health benefits.
So do you know what all of these labels are actually telling you? Do you know what that cage-free, grass-fed whatever is really getting you (besides a higher price tag)?
Let’s take a look at the most common “healthy” food labels so you know what you’re really getting to make sure that healthy treat isn’t tricking you, after all.
Eating healthy likely goes beyond wanting to put nutritious food in your body — chances are you’re also looking to avoid chemicals and additives that could be potentially harmful. And that’s where organic food labels come into play.
Foods in the organic category are produced without artificial ingredients, antibiotics, pesticides, growth hormones, or bioengineering techniques.
This might sound great, but it's important to understand the different distinctions in organic labeling.
According to the USDA, foods labeled with the USDA Organic Seal or the 100% organic claim must be made up entirely of 100 percent organic ingredients. Organic produce in this category must be grown in soil that has been free of prohibited substances for three years, while organic meats must be raised in natural living conditions, fed an organic diet, and be raised without antibiotics or hormones.
However, it’s important not to confuse the certified organic label with the foods that are labeled as “made-with” organic.
Foods labeled under the “Made-With” organic category must only contain 70-percent organic ingredients. The remaining ingredients in these foods must be produced without prohibited methods — such as genetic engineering — but they are not required to be produced at the same standard (or without the same additives) as 100% organic foods.
If eating an organic diet is your priority, make sure you’re looking closely at which organic label you choose.
If it says “natural” it must be healthy, right???
Not so fast. If you’re not careful, this is one of those labeling traps that can fall under the “trick” category.
Unlike organic foods, which are closely regulated by the USDA, foods labeled as “natural” do not require the same level of consideration. According to the FDA, they consider foods labeled as “natural” to be free of artificial or synthetic additives that would not normally be expected in that food.
But this label does not address food production, processing, or manufacturing methods — meaning it may be produced with pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“Natural” food labels are a gamble — they might be a healthy choice or they might just be some marketing mumbo-jumbo. Just make sure you’re doing a little research before you assume they have any particular health or nutritional benefits.
In the last decade, gluten-free lifestyles have become a part of mainstream nutritional trends. Whether you suffer from Celiac Disease, or just find it makes you feel better, your options for gluten-free foods seem endless these days.
And when it comes to breads, pastas, baked goods, or even beer (just to name a few), “gluten-free” labels can be really useful for helping you find foods to fit your lifestyle.
But while the foods that are labeled as “gluten-free” aren’t trying to trick you, the way they’re being used might be.
In recent years, some companies have been using “gluten-free” labels as a marketing tactic to increase sales — by adding them to foods that never contained gluten in the first place. Foods like poultry or produce have been known to crop up with a “gluten-free” label, and while this is absolutely true, these items may also come with a heftier price tag.
When you’re selecting gluten-free items, make sure you’re getting what you pay for.
Animal Product Labels
When it comes to getting tricked, animal products — like meat, poultry, or dairy — are one of the easiest areas to get caught.
That’s because there are lots of different distinctions that can be confusing. And while some of these fancy labels might sound great, what they actually mean might surprise you.
Grass-fed. While the “grass-fed” label does mean that cattle and dairy cows are fed fresh or dried grass as part of their diet, it doesn’t mean that they are fed an exclusively-grass diet. This label isn’t regulated by the USDA and a significant portion of the animals’ diet may still be made up of corn or grain.
Cage-free. Think the chickens that lay those cage-free eggs are happily roaming around a farm yard all day? Think again. While cage-free hens might not be kept in cages, they’re often kept in tightly-packed pens with restricted movement.
Free-range/Pasture-raised. Much like cage-free animals, with free-range and pasture-raised claims, the devil may be in the details. These claims are not regulated, meaning there is no standard for where, when, or how long these animals are allowed to roam.
Certified Humane Raised and Handled. This label is used by the nonprofit organization Humane Farm Animal Care. This label ensures that those food products have been raised and processed with specific standards for humane treatment.
AGW Foods. Like Certified Humane, these labels ensure that certain standards for animal treatment have been met. Regulated by the nonprofit organization A Greener World, AGW programs certify that all animals have been raised and processed by humane, transparent methods. These labels include AGA Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Grassfed, Certified Non-GMO, and more.
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