How often do you hear the words ‘natural‘ and ‘organic‘? What about ‘whole-grain‘ and ‘fair-trade‘? Which of these labels actually tell you something about the food? Which of these labels are regulated- and which are not? Are there some that are more important than others?
Every year there a hundreds of new food products introduced to the market and seemingly just as many new labels that appear on the packages. Labels are used by companies to make their products more appealing to the consumer, but actually tell us more about the marketing trends of the moment than the product itself. It’s important to learn your labels because some of them mean more than others- and some might not actually mean anything at all! There are lots of food labels out there, but we’re going to deal with some of the most common food labels: natural, organic, whole-grain, fair-trade. Another equally important label is Non-GMO, which we’ll take on in a forthcoming post!
‘Natural’ is one of the most common labels used on food products. This is partially due to consumer demand for more natural products. As the organic food market continues to grow each year, companies are changing their ingredients to be more natural by using less chemical and synthetic ingredients. But this also has a negative impact and encourages producers to label things as natural that don’t deserve this label. A great example of this is the use of the label “100% Natural” on the Wesson oils that are made with Genetically Modified Foods (GMO). Because the seeds used to make the oil are GM, the product is inherently UNNATURAL. Another famous example labeling misuse the company Kashi. Nearly their entire line of food products is labeled natural, and yet their cereals and other products tested positive for GMO soy and other GMO ingredients, which upset many of their long-time customers who trusted the company to stand by this label.
So- consumer beware! If a food is labeled as natural, it can contain almost anything because this label is not regulated! According to Wikipedia, “Neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rules for ‘natural’ [for most food products]. The FDA explicitly discourages the food industry from using the term. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits labeling that is false or misleading, but does not give any specifics.” However, natural does mean something when it comes to animal products: according to the Huffington Post, meat cannot contain artificial ingredients or added color. But the term ‘naturally raised’ is voluntary and can mean anything. There are no regulations regarding the label all-natural, either, this is no different than the natural label.
The ‘organic’ food label is perhaps the most important food label used- not only because organic is best for our planet, but because it is actually regulated by the USDA. Organic foods are those grown without chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, irradiation or genetic modification. Organic agriculture is important for lots of reasons: less chemical residue in the soil, less danger to farm workers, and potentially healthier (and better-tasting!) produce.
Though the USDA Organic label is the most ubiquitous, there are other certification programs too (like CCOF and Oregon Tilth). But first, what does that little label mean? According the the National Organic Program, the certification arm of the USDA, the USDA Organic label ensures that, “the product is certified organic and has 95 percent or more organic content. For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic.” This 95% organic presents a bit of a loophole for some companies that sneak in non-organic ingredients into their products. For a truly organic product, the label should read 100% organic- which ensures that every ingredient is organic (excepting salt and water). You might also see the confusing label ‘made with organic ingredients.’ This is moderately deceptive, because there may be only 70% organic ingredients in the product, and the remainder can contain other non-organic ingredients.
Some companies work around the labeling issue by using the word ‘organic’ in their name, though their products are not actually certified. According to this article from the Cornucopia Institute, companies like Newman’s Own Organics lure people into thinking their products are organic without actually creating organic products (and actually including GMO ingredients), leading to a distrust of truly organic companies and an undermining of consumer confidence in organic brands.
This is another non-regulated label. Companies can choose to say ‘made with whole grains’ or ‘contains whole-grain ingredients’ regardless of the percentage of whole grain or how healthful the overall product might be. In many ways this is the most deceptive label: consumers continually hear that they should eat more whole grains, but with little information available about what actually constitutes a whole-grain food, many consumers are easily duped into thinking their ‘whole-grain’ cereal is a healthy option. Case in point: most General Mills cereals now boast a huge label on the front stating that their products ‘have Whole Grain as the first ingredient.’ This is good… but it’s pretty terrible when after the initial oats, corn, or wheat, the second and third ingredients are sugar, oils, maltodextrin, corn meal, corn syrup, or marshmallows. Sure, this product is made with whole grains, but as they are often rounded out with non-whole grain ingredients, their health benefit is minimal and their promotion of whole-grain foods is downright misleading. This is also true for breads, pastas, and crackers- though these may contain some whole grains, these processed flour products are not truly whole grain. These cereals shown below contain only two grams or less of fiber, and so these products don’t offer the benefits of whole grain foods. True whole grains, like oats, rye, wheat, and barley, contain upwards of 4 grams of fiber for each serving.
Fair trade is an important certification process that ensures that farmers are paid a good price for their commodity crops. The most common goods that are fair-trade certified are coffee, cacao/chocolate, tea, spices, oils, and other high-value crops. Fair pay for farm goods is important for every food crop, but fair-trade products are often those products in which the farmers are often exploited by suppliers and middlemen. Coffee, for example, is a highly valuable crop across the world and yet farmers are paid only a tiny percentage of the final retail cost. Fair trade certification ensures that the farmer receive adequate pay for their work, but they also work with local communities to support healthier agriculture, fair labor conditions, and community and environmental sustainability. The main certification organization in the US is Fair Trade USA, which has a fantastic website full of useful information and news.
What food labels confuse YOU? Have you been duped by these food labels before? Let us know in the comments!