American consumers have grown more and more conscious of what exactly they are eating, and label reading is now de rigeur for any self-respecting grocery shopper that wants to be informed. Yet food companies are getting savvy to our need for information in this modern era – as well as to our obvious proclivities for certain psychological cues. Who subconsciously thinks that "green" = "fresh"?
While certain words and phrases such as “Low Sodium” or “Certified USDA Organic” are regulated and certified by government agencies, most are not - and it’s up to the consumer to read between the lines in order to find something healthy to eat.
Don’t be fooled! If you want to know what’s in a grocery product, read the nutrition label and ingredients carefully, because the following food labels mean practically nothing.
“Natural” – A “natural” or “all-natural” product seems to imply that all the ingredients were plucked straight from nature with no interference from human beings, but in reality there isn’t much on this earth that ISN’T natural. The FDA only regulates the word “natural” in meat and poultry products to include those that contain no artificial substances - although confusingly, genetically modified organisms are allowed. One could convincingly argue that even petroleum by-products, high fructose corn syrup and rat excrement are natural – after all, they all came from the natural world. Perhaps the biggest offender on this list, the tag “natural” on any item is basically meaningless and has been usurped by grocery manufacturers trying to compete with the certified organic food label.
“Local” – There are no legal standards for the word “local,” so your grocer could put up oranges from Chile and call them “local” with no repercussions. How to avoid this conundrum? Shop for produce at farmers markets, visit local farms and get to know the people who grow your food.
“Free Range” – As far as the USDA is concerned, the only certifiable “free range” food items are poultry and eggs. The law states that chickens must be “allowed access to the outside,” yet there are zero specifications as to how big this outdoor area must be. There might be one door that goes to a 4’x4’ yard for 100 chickens or more that are all eating hormone-fueled, pesticide-drenched food. Your best bet is to purchase USDA Certified Organic eggs. Other “free range” meats such as beef or pork are not regulated at all, and you will just have to trust the manufacturer (or do your research).
“Made with Whole Grains” – This product might include 99.99% refined grains and .01% whole grains, but there’s no way to know because the term is not regulated. The manufacturer could throw two grains of oatmeal into five tons of their product and assert that it is “Made with Whole Grains.” Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are eating healthier than you are!
“Lightly-sweetened” – Surely a food product that is “lightly-sweetened” contains less sugar than the norm, right? Not necessarily. Another unregulated term, “lightly-sweetened” is used to describe plenty of products that are loaded with sugar, corn syrup or other sweeteners. This food label means nothing!
Image: Walmart Stores