August 14, 2008

Deconstructing Food Labels


What you need to know to shop smarter and eat healthier

For me, grocery shopping isn't as easy as it once was.

There are too many choices.

At one time, the only words I looked for on a package were the phrases "low-fat" or "whole grain." Not anymore.

Take pasta. Now there are organic and gluten-free choices too.

So, is organic white pasta healthier than nonorganic whole grain pasta?

Then there's gluten-free pasta. I don't have celiac disease, but for some reason, I just feel like gluten-free is the healthier choice.

Not only am I trying to maintain a low-cholesterol, heart- healthy diet -- I'm also concerned about the possibility of pesticides and fungicides on my vegetables. Nutritionists advise us to eat lots of veggies, but some people are getting sick from eating them because of contamination.

And if I stopped long enough to think about how that thick cut of filet mignon was raised, then slaughtered, I'd probably give serious consideration to vegetarianism. Most poultry, pork and beef products purchased in supermarkets were injected with hormones to promote faster maturity.

Think you're more humane going with cage-free or free-range eggs? Maybe not. Sometimes those labels can be misleading.

What does it all mean? You could spend hours in the grocery store, reading food labels and weighing options.

Here's some help:


What it means: The National Organic Standards Board defines "organic" agriculture as an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.

It's a labeling term, defined by law, and enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA uses private and state agencies to inspect and certify food companies marketing organic foods. The organic label guarantees that the food was raised humanely and without the use of toxic agricultural chemicals, antibiotics, preservatives or other man-made additives. Organic foods also haven't been genetically altered or irradiated.

Small farmers selling less than $5,000 in organic sales are exempt from the certification process, but must still comply with the government standards. Failure to do so could lead to fines of up to $10,000 for each violation.

Decoding the "organic" label:

- "100 percent organic" applies to single ingredients such as fruit, vegetable, meat, milk and cheese (excludes water and salt).

- "Organic" applies to multiple ingredient foods that are 95 percent to 100 percent organic.

- "Made with organic ingredients" means that between 70 percent and

95 percent of the ingredients are organic.

- "Contains organic ingredients" means the product contains less than 70 percent of organic ingredients.

Is it healthier? Organic food isn't genetically engineered. More pesticides are used on genetically modified crops, or GMOs. Some studies also have found that GMOs contain hormones that could cause disease or cancer in animals and humans.

Advantage: Some European studies have shown that organic foods are more nutritious. Medical News Today reported in November that a 4-year European Union study suggests that organic fruit, vegetables and milk may contain higher concentrations of cancer-fighting and heart healthy antioxidants. Researchers said that eating organic food was equivalent to eating an extra portion of fruits and vegetables.

Disadvantage: It costs more to eat organically. A nonorganic Red Delicious apple at Harris Teeter is $1.99 a pound, compared to an organic apple of the same variety, which is $2.49 a pound.

Beware of misleading labels

-The term "natural" has no official meaning at all.

- "Natural" also doesn't always mean "healthy." For example, "natural" coconut milk is still high in fat.

- Labels that say "Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly" claim to be an alternative to the USDA's National Organic Program label. But this label doesn't follow the same codes as the USDA's National Organic Program. Under the terms of the "Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly" certification requirements, most conventional dairy practices are acceptable.

Dietitian Dayle Fuentes also advises consumers to look at the nutrition facts to determine whether the product is a heart healthy item.

She also recommends buying food from respectable markets such as Whole Foods, which takes the time to follow their products from farm to shelf.

"My advice is to eat food that is grown as close to its natural environment as possible, free of harmful pesticides, antibiotics, chemicals and growth hormones," she says.

Local food

What it means: Local, or regional, food refers to a movement or effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies. Local food producers tend to be smaller operations, which usually emphasizes sustainable production, processing and distribution practices.

Where can you find it: Community-based farmers markets or organic food co-operatives.

Is it healthier? Although a locally raised apple may not have the bright glossy sheen of one that came from New Zealand, it's certainly fresher.

Advantage: Buying local reduces global warming. Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles -- that's farther than most people travel for their annual vacations.

Consider this: If every person in the U.S. ate just one meal a week composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce the country's oil consumption by more than 1.1 million BARRELS of oil every week.

Buying locally raised or produced food also puts dollars back into your own community.

Disadvantage: A team of researchers at the University of California, Davis, studied the carbon footprint of food. The study raised the idea that just because something is local, doesn't mean that it's better for the environment.

Take strawberries. Say mass producers of strawberries shipped their product from California to Chicago by truck. The fuel cost of supporting each carton of berries is considerably small, since it's traveling with thousands of others.

But that small farmer selling his berries at local markets in California ferries smaller amounts by pickup truck to each market.

Transporting food by container ship or by rail is relatively energy-efficient compared to shipping it by air or a 25-year-old pickup truck. Slow food

What it means: It's a movement founded in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, an Italian who wanted to spread a global resistance to fast food. It emphasizes cultural cuisine, and the associated food plants, seeds, domestic animals and farming practices of a particular region. The movement now includes 83,000 members in 122 countries.

Is it healthier? The slow food movement emphasizes taking the time to make your own pasta or squeeze your own juice. It certainly cuts down on the amount of preservatives you ingest.

Advantage: It promotes slowing down to enjoy your meal, making you more aware of flavor, texture and when you've had enough to eat.

Disadvantage: It takes more time and more skill to prepare your food. Free-range

What it means: Chickens and turkeys can be sold as free-range if they have access to the outdoors. No other criteria -- environmental quality, pen size or population density -- applies.

Is it healthier? A 2007 Mother Earth News egg-testing project compared the eggs from 14 free-range flocks around the country to the USDA nutrient data of commercial eggs. It found that free-range eggs may contain one-third less cholesterol; one-fourth less saturated fat; two-thirds more vitamin A; twice as much omega-3 fatty acids; three times more vitamin E; and seven times more beta carotene.

Advantage: You may be able to devour your eggs or cordon bleu with a clearer conscience.

Disadvantage: The term is sometimes misleading, because it implies that the animal was treated more humanely than maybe it actually was. Cage-free

What it means: The birds aren't raised in traditional cages, but it doesn't mean that they were allowed to roam free. They can be raised on the floor of a poultry house or barn, but not allowed to roam in outdoor pens.

Disadvantage: Unless you know the farmer raising the product, it's hard to know how the animal was treated. find MORE food labels ON D2 Hormone and antibiotic-free

What it means: The animals haven't been treated with antibiotics to prevent disease or hormones to increase growth or milk or egg production.

Is it healthier? Consider this: when it comes to milk or dairy products, any hormones or antibiotics given to the animal will flow through its milk too.

Advantage: Look for certified organic foods. This means a certifying agency -- usually named on the label -- visited the farm and guarantees that the farmer complied with organic rules.

Disadvantage: Unless the label includes the name of a certifying agency, you can't know for certain that the product is truly free of hormones or antibiotics. Products labeled as hormone and antibiotic- free also are more expensive. Grass-fed beef

What it means: Most beef products available at supermarkets are grain-fed, so that they mature faster. But cattle don't easily digest grains, which cause liver abscesses. Grass-fed cows consume a more natural diet. Some ranchers have returned to allowing their cattle to feed on grass.

Is it healthier? Grass-fed cows may be healthier than their grain- fed counterparts, but all beef is high in fat and cholesterol and lacks fiber.

Advantage: Look for the USDA Organic label, which means the grass- fed cattle grazed on fields free of chemical fertilizers or herbicides.

Disadvantages: It takes longer for the cattle to mature, which makes it more expensive for the rancher, which leads to higher costs to consumers. But some grass-fed advocates say this isn't a bad thing. Most people should eat less meat. Gluten-free

What it means: Free of ingredients derived from gluten- containing cereals, wheat, barley, rye, oats and triticale. This includes kamut and spelt, as well as some food additives, which flavor, stabilize or serve as a thickening agent.

Is it healthier? A gluten-free diet is recommended for people suffering from celiac or coeliac disease, an intolerance to gluten. But gluten-free diets aren't always heart-healthy. Gluten-free products often are lower in fiber, and higher in sugar and fat.

Advantages: None, if you don't have a gluten intolerance. Although it could lead you to a diet with more fruits and vegetables.

Disadvantages: Gluten-free products are harder to find, and often more expensive. Dining out can present greater challenges to a gluten-free diet.

Want to know more?

To find local food hotspots in your area, go to:




Food policy, consumer and advocacy organizations

- The Organic Consumers Association,

- The Center for Food Safety,

Sources: Dayle Fuentes, dietitian for BestHealth at Baptist Medical Center ; "The Food Revolution" by John Robbins; American Society for Nutrition; "Animal, Vegetable Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver; The Organic Consumers Association; The Organic Trade Association;; N.C. Cooperative Extension; "The Organic Food Shopper's Guide" by Jeff Cox.

Contact Tina Firesheets at 373-3498 or [email protected]

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