Healthy Living

What do these 5 common food marketing labels mean?

The patchwork of labels on groceries can seem like a secret code. Organic? Non-GMO? Natural?

“Food marketing terminology is mostly confusing to the average consumer and designed to sell food — not necessarily to accurately inform the buyer on their choice,” says Laurie Mitchell, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who oversees Colonial Life’s corporate wellness programs.

This is the ninth installment in a new WorkLife series, Healthy Living Basics for Everyone. The sanely paced plan helps you with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle and includes a mental component that helps clarify goals and identify what might hold you back.

Understanding the lingo of these 5 common labels will help you navigate the aisles:

Gluten-free
Unless you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, there’s no need to restrict yourself to gluten-free foods — though they sure are trendy these days. Wheat and certain other grains, such as barley, have gluten: sticky stuff that gives things such as bread their chewy texture and helps them bind. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration set some standards for gluten-free labels several years ago.

Local
This is a loose term, often used for produce, that means food isn’t coming from another country, or even the other side of this country — but there’s no restriction on distance. Buying local can mean more nutritious fruits and veggies because they were probably picked when they were almost ripe, if they didn’t have to travel far. Stores usually note where local food is from, so you can gauge how long it took to get there. Riper produce also often tastes better, and buying it can help you support other causes.

“Seasonal local food has less of a carbon footprint, may cost less and often has more flavor,” Mitchell says. “I’ve had a lot of tasteless organic produce from thousands of miles away. Flash frozen when picked (organic or conventional) likely has more nutrient retention than fresh shipped 2,000 miles. Buying local is also better for your local economy if you care about such things.”

Natural
The “natural” label seems ubiquitous, but there’s zero regulation of it, let alone a definition from a regulatory agency such as the FDA or U.S. Department of Agriculture. Best bet? Ignore it. Same goes for sister labels such as “healthy.”

Non-GMO
“Non-GMO” means food has not come from genetically engineered plants. Lots of foods are genetically modified, including two biggies: corn and soybeans (both of which are often fed to animals, which often serve as or provide other food).

The FDA has issued suggestions for non-GMO labels, but that’s it. “Food manufacturers may voluntarily label their foods with information about whether the foods were not produced using bioengineering, as long as such information is truthful and not misleading,” the FDA says. That said, there is a verification process through Non-GMO Project.

“Non-GMO” is a popular — and overused — label. To wit: All organic food is non-GMO, but many of its manufacturers still slap the label on their goods to inform (and woo) folks who don’t already know that. Variants include “Not bioengineered and “Not genetically engineered.”

Some studies have shown foods from bioengineered plants have higher nutrition content, yet other studies suggest they are harmful.

Organic
This is the most highly regulated label — if it’s the iconic seal that reads “USDA Organic.”

The makers of certified organic foods go through a rigorous process to meet guidelines, sometimes long before they even produce anything (for example, soil prep for certified organic fruit and veggies). Certified organic food — and it must have the label to be certified organic — can’t have antibiotics, be treated with pesticides or be genetically modified, among other requirements.

The bottom line
So which labels should sway you? None, perhaps, but at least now you know what they mean.

“Other than buying organic for the dirty dozen to avoid pesticide residue, I think it’s a personal choice and one that’s strongly influenced by price.” Mitchell says. “Consumers can eat healthy (or healthier) diets without purchasing organic items. Health is mostly about the composition of the diet in general.”

For example, how are you doing as far as macronutrients and micronutrients? And is your diet largely plant-based?

“It’s much less about whether individual foods are organic or not,” Mitchell says. “I could eat organic energy bars or other highly processed organic foods, but I wouldn’t consider that to be healthier than a conventionally grown piece of fresh fruit.”

Journalist and yoga teacher Mitra Malek regularly creates content for wellness-focused outlets, including Yoga Journal, where she was an editor. Learn more at www.mitramalek.com.

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