Here’s what all those confusing food labels actually mean
Posted May 31
Shoppers today are more discerning than ever, and with good reason. Food labels like “all natural,” “low sodium,” “cholesterol free” and many, many more are popping up on packages across the grocery store aisles. And with so many options, it’s hard to know what you’re actually buying.
This is important for a number of reasons. First, it’s good to be informed. Second, food manufacturers use a variety of tricks to get consumers to buy things they shouldn’t really be eating. Using food labels like “low sodium” and “no trans fats” are easy ways to shine a health-conscious light on foods that aren’t healthy at all. Snackwell’s Devil’s Food Cakes, anyone? Just because they don’t contain partially hydrogenated oils or high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t make them a diet-friendly treat (I did not know this as a child and basically assumed they were health food. The ’90s were a confusing time).
Then, there are the labels that try and convince you that your meat or dairy was raised more ethically than it actually was. The differences between “all natural,” “organic,” “free range” and “pasture raised” are significant. Manufacturers know that people are willing to pay a premium for high-quality meat, and slapping a vague label on a package of chicken thighs can often replace actually bettering production practices.
Armed with this information, here’s what you need to know:
In order to label a food organic, farmers and processors must adhere to strict federal standards. But here’s the kicker: Food labeled organic must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, so know that pre-packaged items probably contain a percentage of conventionally grown ingredients. Processed foods also cannot contain any artificial preservatives, colors or flavors.
Organic ingredients mean crops must be grown with fewer pesticides, no synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. It also means farm animals are fed an organic diet and raised without antibiotics.
A food labeled “natural” or “all-natural” seems like a smart, healthy, environmentally conscious pick. In fact, a 2015 survey from Consumer Reports found that 62 percent of consumers specifically look for foods labeled as “natural.” Roughly the same percentage of consumers surveyed believe that these labels mean the same thing as organic: no pesticides, antibiotics or artificial ingredients.
But this is an example of those food companies trying to trick you. The term “natural” is barely regulated by the FDA, and its misleading nature has caused quite the public outcry. So next time you see that label on a box, skip it, and save your money.
“Fat-Free,” “Sugar-Free” or “Salt-Free”
Do you remember the sugar-free craze when we all thought Diet Coke was healthy? Or the fat-free craze that ruined cheese for years? These food labels mean the product has none or a “physiologically inconsequential” amount of that nutrient, according to the FDA. In the case of sugar or fat, this means the food has less than half a gram per serving. But that means it still exists, and you should check the package carefully to see what else is lurking in the nutrition facts.
“No Trans Fats”
Yet another hideously tricky food label. Even if a package says there are no trans fats in the food, products can still have up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, according to the FDA. And if you’re not watching your serving size, that can add up quickly. This is important to know because trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that raises your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Consumption of trans fats can increase your risk of heart disease and is generally something to avoid.
Here’s more information on how to read food labels.