I’ve always said how important it is to ignore the food labels screaming at you on the front of the package and to instead read the ingredients to know what’s really in your food (and how processed it is). But, hopefully, this post today will drive that point home even further. As you will see, so many of those labels can mean SO many different things. Sadly, many are not regulated with specific definitions and, even if they are, they can still be very misleading.
Unregulated Packaged Food Terms
If a product is “natural” one would think it would mean it’s not made with any artificial ingredients (which can still be highly processed, by the way!), but I’ve actually seen a product claiming to be natural on the front and showing artificial additives in the ingredients list on the back. (It was a canister of Crystal Light a couple of years ago if you are wondering.) This term has some loose guidelines but is not strictly regulated at this time, so it’s a really hard one to trust. Thankfully the FDA is at least looking into this one.
The FDA has no definition or regulation around using the term “superfood” for products. I myself don’t buy into the superfood phenomenon AT ALL. While most “superfoods” are real foods (and there’s nothing wrong with eating them), if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
This term is another the government does not closely regulate so unless the term is used by a trustworthy company (and those do exist!), it can mean anything from a diet of a little grass with mostly conventional grain feed to 100% pasture fed for the duration of the animal’s life (after weening from its mother’s milk). It also does not tell you if the cows were given organic grass/feed or anything else about how they were raised.
There is no federal definition for this one either, although one would hope it means the animals were on a pasture of green grasses. We can’t know for sure unless it’s from a company we can trust.
Regulated, but Misleading
- Free-range (or cage-free)
Free-range means the hens are “housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.” So basically a door to a tiny patch of dirt outside the building would qualify here. It doesn’t say how big the area is or if there’s any grass there, or how often they actually need to (and do) use this space. I’ve even read it can just be a “pop hole” for their head with no full-body access to the outdoors—yikes!
Cage-free means the hens are “housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” This means they may never go outside and can be packed in a building with thousands of other chickens trampling all over each other. I mean, a life where you never see the light of day? I am not so sure about that one.
- Made with real fruit
Even though a little bit of fruit may have been used as advertised, it doesn’t even have to be the fruit pictured on the front of the package, and it can also be “fruit” that’s been processed down into what’s basically a sugar (fruit juice concentrate).
- Made with whole grains
Again, this can be anywhere on a very wide spectrum. A product that’s 99% whole grain is not even in the same category as one that’s only 1% whole grain.
This one probably drives me the craziest… YES, there may be no added sugar, but that’s usually because they’ve used artificial sweeteners instead, which are even worse than sugar (the real thing)!
- No trans-fat
Trans fat, from partially hydrogenated oils (how it’s listed on the ingredient label), is considered to be the worst type of fat in our food supply. A product can say 0 grams of trans fat IF it contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. That means it can still have 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving, and depending on how many servings you eat over time, that can add up fast!
A Term That Is Regulated
While we’re on the topic, I want to make sure I say USDA ORGANIC is a term that’s regulated by the government and therefore one you can always trust (no matter what food company is using it). This certification means it was grown (or raised) on soil that had no prohibited synthetic fertilizers or pesticides applied for three years prior. Regarding organic meat, it means “animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.”
You may also see something such as “Made with organic corn [or another ingredient].” Any “multi-ingredient agricultural products in the ‘Made with organic ***‘ category must contain at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients (not including salt or water). All ingredients—including the 30 percent non-organic ingredients—must be produced without GMOs.”
So, while it’s not quite as good as a 100% USDA certified organic product, it’s far better than buying conventional. Can’t buy everything organic? Check out this list to see which foods to prioritize!
I hope all this info helps!
Any surprises for you in this list? Or any others we should watch out for?