Mother Earth Living

Understanding Food Labels

Packaged foods are a cause of stress to many a grocery
shopper these days. Use the helpful guide below to help you navigate your
supermarket’s trickiest label claims. We’ll be adding more all the time.

Label Reading Hint: Beware the clever adjective! 

Lite Potato Crisps vs. Potato
Chips; Grandma’s Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies vs. Chocolate Chip Cookies;
All-Natural Lemon Frosting vs. Lemon Frosting; Artisan Cheese Bakes vs. Cheese
Puffs. Descriptive language may make you think something is either healthier or
more delicious than it really is. Think beyond the marketing copy.

“Free range” refers to chickens being allowed to range freely outdoors where they can eat whatever grass, weed seeds, insects and worms they choose. This results in more nutritious eggs and meat for consumers, and more healthy, humane conditions for the birds. Some producers abuse this term and label their eggs as “free range” when in fact all they have done is open a door to allow their chickens to range in an outdoor area of bare dirt or concrete, with no pasture in sight. Some producers choose a modified system that involves keeping birds safe from predators by confining them in pens or inside electric fencing, and moving the pens frequently onto fresh pastures. Thus, pastured birds may be true free-range or penned, but either system is correctly referred to as “pastured.” And either system is a better choice than products that come from industrial factory farm conditions. (From Free-Range vs. Pastured: Chicken and Eggs; To learn more about egg cartons, see How to Decode Egg Cartons.)

Grass-fed animals have access to pasture for grazing, but the presence of this term on meat labels does not tell you how long the animals had such access. Grass finished animals must have been fed exclusively on grass, which is the natural diet of a ruminant (grazing) animal, for at least 90 days prior to slaughter. Check out some of the benefits of grass-based farming from The Amazing Benefits of Grass-Fed Meat:

  • More humane animal treatment
  • More nutritious meat and dairy products
  • Reduced flooding and soil erosion
  • Increased groundwater recharge
  • More sustainable manure management
  • Less E. coli food poisoning
  • More fertile soil and more nutritious forages
  • More diverse and healthier ecosystems
  • Reduced use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow unsustainable corn and soy 

There is no set a definition for “natural,” even though you’ll find it on numerous food packages.

REgulated by the FDA, natural flavorings, the roles of which are flavoring rather than nutritional, must be “derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, egg, dairy product …” 

Used voluntarily, this term is meant to indicate that meat or poultry was produced with no artificial flavorings, colorings, chemical preservatives or synthetic ingredients.

To make the best use of the nutrition data supplied by a manufacturer, pay attention to the serving size and the % Daily Value amounts. If a food contains 25% of your daily recommended amount of a particular nutrient, say sodium, you’ll need to consider whether you will end up consuming too much sodium throughout the day if this item makes it on the menu.

Mandatory components: total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron

Voluntary components: calories from saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, potassium, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, sugar alcohols, other carbohydrates, percent of vitamin A present as beta-carotene, other essential vitamins and minerals

Organic foods are grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. They cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. This label does not necessarily mean that the food was produced with fair labor practices or that it was grown locally, or even domestically. Some foods that are grown organically will not carry the USDA Organic Seal, because the farm has chosen not to pursue organic certification from the government.  

100 Percent Organic: Contains only organic ingredients (except water and salt); will feature the USDA Organic Seal

Organic: Contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients (except water and salt); will feature the USDA Organic Seal

Made With Organic Ingredients: Packaged foods that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can put “made with organic ingredients” on the package, and list up to three of those organic ingredients.

Organic Ingredients: Packaged foods that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list specific organic ingredients in the ingredients list. 

Another way to say “free-range” or “grass fed.”

Standardized serving sizes on packages can make comparison shopping easier, but be sure you are comparing the portion size you would actually consume to what is listed on the package. One cookie? 5 chips? Half a cup of ice cream? Do the math and be realistic. Another quick way to gauge whether serving sizes are plausible or not is to look at the Servings Per Container number. If you know you can eat a whole sleeve of Fig Newtons, then the whole package doesn’t contain as many servings for you as they claim.

The FDA regulates what can be considered a whole grain. “Grains must consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components–the starchy endosperm, germ and bran–are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis.” In other words, the three main components of whole grain must all be present. If they are, the food manufacturer may use the Whole Grain stamp of the Whole Grains Council.

Excellent Source/100 Percent: 16 grams or more of whole grains, or one complete serving

Good Source: 8 grams or more of whole grain, or half a serving  

  • Published on Jun 6, 2012
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