6 Food Claims to Pay Attention to—and 4 to Ignore
Everything you need to know about those sometimes confusing nutrition claims on your grocery-store buys.
Pay attention to: “Organic”
If there’s one food claim you can’t avoid seeing just about everywhere, from grocery stores to high-end restaurants, it’s organic. The term is given to USDA-certified foods that are grown and processed according to specific federal guidelines. The farmers must adhere to seriously strict standards regarding soil quality, animal-raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. As with all organic food, none of it is grown with or even touched by genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which the organic standards prohibit (although it is not tested). “Every food variety has different standards,” explains Abigail Joy Dougherty, RDN, nutrition consultant at The Soul of Health Nutrition. “Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have been grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest and is non-GMO.” Meat regulations, on the other hand, are more rigorous, requiring that animals are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, and are not administered antibiotics or hormones. And processed organic foods have their own set of regulations, prohibiting the use of artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors, and requiring the use of all-organic ingredients. “I believe eating organic is ethical and economic, but it still might not be right for everyone based on their budget,” says Dougherty. Here are the 50 secrets food manufacturers won’t tell you that could change the way you eat.
Pay attention to: “Grass-fed”
This label refers only to meat that comes from cows and indicates that the animals were able to roam freely and forage on grass. “Grass-fed cows have higher omega-3 and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) content in their meat, so it’s more nutritious,” explains Eliza Whetzel, RD, New York City-based dietitian. “Conventionally raised cows, or those raised on grains such as corn or soy (usually GMO!), are fattened up much more quickly than grass-fed cows and are treated with antibiotics and hormones to help them grow quickly and survive unsanitary living conditions.” Studies also show that grass-fed beef contains more “good” fats than “bad” fats, and it has been shown to reduce inflammation. To get the most of these benefits though, look for 100 percent grass-fed beef. “This is a term to pay attention to because meat can be organic and grass-fed, but not 100 percent grass-fed,” warns Dougherty. That means that grain may also have been part of the animal’s diet. Check out these supermarket shopping secrets from America’s top grocery stores.
Pay attention to: “Non-GMO”
GMO, or genetically modified organisms, refers to plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to be able to withstand disease and grow faster and potentially larger to cater to marketplace demands. “Non-GMO Project Verified label means that a product contains less than 0.9 percent GMOs,” explains Whetzel. Something to note, however, is that certified organic foods are always non-GMO, but non-GMO isn’t always organic—it just means free of genetic modification. “These foods can still be treated with pesticides, so choose foods that are both non-GMO project and 100-percent certified organic,” Whetzel suggests. “GMO foods may cause allergies or inflammation due to the altered proteins in the genetic makeup of the plant.” To be sure you’re purchasing a product that does not contain GMO ingredients, first check the label for the saying “Non-GMO Project Verified” or look for the USDA Organic seal (which automatically means no GMO ingredients). “You can also check to see if a product has corn or soy in it, as those are two of the most common GMO crops,” says Dougherty. Don’t miss this guide on how to decode the 11 trickiest terms on food labels.
Pay attention to: “No Added Sugar”
The American Heart Association recommends fewer than six teaspoons of added sugar for women and fewer than nine teaspoons for men per day. But, as it turns out, the average American is consuming nearly 22 teaspoons daily—that’s about three times the recommended limit! “Excess amounts of added sugars in the diet can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even certain cancers,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, author of Belly Fat for Dummies. That’s why it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for the “no added sugar” label on food products. No-added-sugar products can’t be sweetened with any forms of sugar, however, it’s important to note that they can have sugar alcohols and artificial sugars that may lead to digestive distress when consumed in high amounts. It’s tough to avoid sugar completely—almost all foods have some, from sauces to condiments to bread. But all of this naturally occurring sugar comes from nutrients. “When things have added sugar, they simply bring the sugar, without any nutrients,” says Lisa Hayim, MS, RD, registered dietitian. “This excess sugar is what causes us to crave more sugar, and can ultimately lead to weight gain and disease.” Make sure you stop falling for these food packaging tricks.
Pay attention to: “Free of Antibiotics”
You know how your doctor prescribes antibiotics when you’re sick with a bacterial infection? Well many farmers do the same with their animals, but not for the sole purpose of making them feel better—it’s often to keep them alive in the horrible living conditions in which they might otherwise die. The result? You dig into a plate of antibiotics-riddled chicken or steak, which builds up your resistance to antibiotics when you are truly sick and in need. However, the claim “no antibiotics added” on meat packaging means the producer has provided sufficient documentation to demonstrate that the animals were raised without antibiotics. “This is one to look for if you care about the addition of antibiotics in your food,” says Dougherty. “This, again, can be an ethical issue but, it does ensure that there is nothing added to your food that you don’t want there.”
Pay attention to: “Free of Artificial Ingredients”
While this label is generic, it holds some important meaning. “This label indicates that the product is free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavoring, and other additives,” says Dougherty. “I love when products take artificial colors out because they tend to use whole foods like beets or carrots to color their cereal or other food.” Similarly, for products with no artificial flavoring, you’re tasting the real flavor of apples in applesauce, for example, instead of some man-made apple flavoring. An easy way to tell if you’re purchasing a product free of these artificial ingredients is if the label says “USDA organic.” Be sure to nix these 50 unhealthy foods at the supermarket from your shopping list.
All natural doesn’t always mean “healthier,” even though it enjoys a robust health halo. “Because ‘natural’ does not have a formal definition by the USDA, it generally holds no meaning and is consistently overused by manufacturers,” says Hayim. “It can be used on almost anything, despite its genetic modifications and added ingredients.” The “all-natural” label does not mean organic and it definitely does not indicate the food is healthy. There are certain types of cereal, crackers, and even fruit snacks that claim to be all-natural, but the real test is checking the label to see if there are, in fact, natural ingredients in the product. Tip: Always check the nutritional label, no matter what the front of the box says.
Ignore: “Non-fat” or “Fat Free”
Fact: All fat is not created equal. Plant-based fats—seeds, nuts, avocado, and coconut oil—offer many health benefits such as improved blood lipids and heart health. The labels “non-fat” or “fat free” indicate that the fat has been taken out of the product, but oftentimes sugar and artificial ingredients are added to replace the flavor lost from taking out the fat. “Foods, such as low-fat peanut butter, are actually less healthy than their full-fat counterparts,” says Palinski-Wade. “If a food contains plant-based fats, it is almost always better to stick with the full fat version.”
Ignore: “Free Range” or “Cage-free”
“Cage-free refers to hens that are not raised in cages, but they may not actually be roaming green fields or have outdoor access,” explains Whetzel. That’s because there is currently no strict definition of free-range or cage-free. Not all cage-free claims are certified, but some are certified by the American Humane Certified label. Free-range, on the other hand, is regulated by the USDA, but it only stipulates that poultry has “access to outside,” leaving duration, size of land, and other factors unspecified. “At the end of the day it’s up to the consumer to decide if he or she cares about the conditions the chickens live under,” says Dougherty. “Nutritionally speaking, the science is still out, but all eggs are still a great source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.”
“‘Whole grain’ and ‘whole wheat’ are some of the most overused terms that help with quick decision making in the bread, cereal, cracker, and pasta aisles,” says Hayim. While whole grains are healthier than refined grains, the label doesn’t tell the whole story. “A quick look at the ingredients label will oftentimes show that, yes, there is whole wheat in the mix, but it’s just a small portion of the wheat used, since it’s cheaper than the more refined type.” You may interpret this label to mean that the food is a whole grain when often it’s not. Bottom line: When opting for whole wheat or whole grain, look for 100 percent on the label. Don’t miss the 11 ways you’ve been reading food labels all wrong and never even knew it.