In the last blog, we talked about some common food labels that are regulated and held to certain standards. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) certify food labels that make claims about health or animal raising practices. Still, there are countless other food labels that don’t make these types of claims. Sometimes they are certified by a third party organization (such as the Fairtrade International or Non-GMO Project from the last blog) – other times there is no overseeing body and the labels are essentially meaningless.
Here are a few common words or phrases that either don’t mean anything, or that can mean something if they are certified by an independent organization.
1. Made with real fruit/vegetables – Not regulated and not meaningful Since this phrase does not make any explicit health or nutrient claims, it is not regulated by the FDA and does not really mean anything. A product could have just a trace of grapes, or just a bit of orange juice concentrate and still have this label. Rather than trust this phrase, look at the ingredients on the Nutrition Facts labels to see what's in it and if fruits are high on the list (ingredients are listed in descending order by weight).
2. Natural – Not meaningful While the FDA considers natural as referring to the absence of artificial or synthetic ingredients, there is no official definition of the term and they do not regulate its use. Additionally, this term does not account for how the animal or crop was raised, so natural does not mean pesticide free or the absence of other processing techniques like pasteurization or irradiation (using radiation to kill bacteria and pathogens). Don't extract much meaning from this label.
3. Local – Not meaningful There is no official definition of what local means. The Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act of 2008 considers local foods to be those that are transported less than 400 miles from their production to marketed site. Sometimes, a store or farmers market will have the name of the farm, so you can look up how far away it actually is.
4. Humane - Not federally regulated, but sometimes meaningful On many meat, dairy, or poultry products you'll see terms in tune with humanely raised, animal welfare approved, or raised with care. If the company includes an explanation of the meaning of the claim, then the USDA requires documentation and the claim must be approved. Otherwise, stand-alone animal welfare claims are not federally regulated. Sometimes claims are verified by third-party organizations, like the Human Farm Animal Care program which stamps products with the label of 'Certified Human Raised and Handled.' Like the FDA and Non-GMO Project, these labeled foods must comply with standards about feed, water, thermal conditions, spatial allowance, building and lighting conditions, and management standards among several others. Understanding the meaning of terms that refer to the ethical treatment of animals is tricky though because there are several organizations with different standards.
5. Whole grain – Not federally regulated, sometimes meaningful
Many bread, grain, and cereal products claim to be whole grain, that is, the product contains the germ, bran, and endosperm of the kernel. These grain parts include nutrients and fiber that are often removed when grains are refined. It is also important not to confuse whole grain with other terms like multi-grain, whole wheat, or enriched wheat. The FDA offers guidelines, but does not have any standards or requirements for companies that label their products as whole grain. The independent organization Whole Grains Council help consumers understand and identify products that are made with whole grains. They provide three types of ‘stamps’ – a 100 percent stamp, a 50+ percent stamp (at least half of grain ingredients are whole grain), and a basic stamp (less than half). For products without these stamps, it is hard to know what percentage of the product’s ingredients is whole grain.
Of course, there are countless other food labels with varying levels of legitimacy, and it can be difficult to differentiate the meaningful and standardized ones from those that are empty marketing tactics. While there is no easy solution to determining which labels mean something legitimate, there are several online articles and resources that offer helpful tips. Be sure to read our last blog, which discusses some common words and phrases with actual substance.
The next blog in this series on food labels will be on how to read a Nutrition Facts label, which can be helpful in determining the health legitimacy of a food label.