The Truth About Food Labels
You want to eat healthy. So, you read labels. Should be simple, right? Unfortunately, some labeling terms are tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while others are not. This means that despite your best efforts, you may not be choosing the healthiest foods for you and your family. Here are some tips to avoid common pitfalls in label reading.
What does “Organic” mean and when is it most important?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) enforces standards for the growth, handling and processing of foods that are certified organic. For fruits and vegetables this means farming without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that make their way into the foods and can be harmful to your health. Instead, organic farmers promote growth and control pests using methods such as manure, compost, crop rotation and beneficial insects and birds. Animals raised organically eat organic feed and are not treated with antibiotics or hormones. Thus, eating certified organic foods reduces your exposure to toxic substances in your food.
Since organic food is not always accessible and can be expensive, knowing when to insist on “organic” is a practical way to approach shopping. Fortunately, the Environmental Work Group (EWG) makes it easy. They’ve developed two lists: the “Dirty Dozen” (foods you should buy organic due to higher levels of pesticides) and the “Clean 15” (food that are relatively low in pesticides). You can download their guides for your smartphone here.
Ignore the Label and Read the Ingredient List
Unlike “organic”, terms like “natural” or “all natural” are not regulated. The FDA actually discourages the use of these terms due to their confusing and often misleading nature. Other dubious label claims include: “zero trans-fats”, “made with whole grains”, “lightly sweetened” and “a good source of fiber”. The best practice is to ignore package claims, and rely instead on ingredient lists.
Chances are you’re tempted by such label claims because you’d like to avoid trans-fats, include whole grains and fiber in your diet and reduce your sugar consumption. Here are some tips to help you achieve these goals without falling prey to marketing claims:
Avoid foods with the following ingredients:
- Hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils. These contain trans-fats. Instead choose foods made with olive oil, butter or coconut oil.
- Enriched or unbleached enriched flour. These flours have been enriched in order to add the nutrients that were stripped from the grain during the refining process. Instead choose products that contain only “whole grain” flours or the whole grains themselves. By doing so, you will get a less processed food and one that is higher in natural sources of fiber.
- Corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup. These are highly processed sweeteners and are used widely in packaged foods and beverages. Look for more natural sources such as real sugar, agave, stevia and even fruit juice. Pay attention to where such sweetener falls on the ingredient list and aim for options where it is not among the first three listed.
Lisa Brown MS, RD, CDN and Jennifer Medina MS, RD, CDE, CDN –among the leading clinicians in their field—are the founders of the premiere nutrition practice in New York City, Brown & Medina Nutrition. Their practice specializes in adolescent, pediatric and adult nutrition including weight management, eating disorders and medical nutrition therapy. They provide nutrition counseling to individuals and families and develop plans that are unique to their clients’ specific needs. The nutritionists of Brown & Medina also specialize in sports nutrition, counseling elite athletes and dancers and also work with high fashion models. They lecture in the public and private NYC schools, they provide corporate wellness programs, have appeared on national TV and they have contributed health advice in various national and regional publications and websites.