Understanding food labels
Get a better feel for what the acronyms and labels used on food packaging actually mean.
Shoppers today are spending almost as much time interpreting food label nutrition claims as they are preparing food. The challenge is separating true and useful information from clever marketing. We all want to know that our money is well spent, so here are some explanations that will help you decipher some of the current hot branding terms found on food labels.
The term “natural” on a label brings up images of pastures and sunshine. A 2015 Consumer Report survey of 1,005 adults found that more than half of the responders believed that food labeled “natural” had no hormones, pesticides or genetically modified organisms. Unfortunately, they were incorrect. The term currently has no legal definition in the United States.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy considers the word “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added. This policy does not include pesticides, artificial growth hormones or GMO products. There is also no enforcement of this policy. The FDA is considering adopting a legal definition for using the term natural on a food label, and public comments are being accepted through May 10, 2016, at www.fda.gov.
There is no mandatory labeling for GMO or GMO-free foods in the United States. Many manufacturers, responding to consumer demand, are now choosing to label their food “non-GMO.” The FDA states that food manufacturers may voluntarily label their foods with information about whether the foods were produced without using bioengineering, as long as such information is truthful and not misleading. The Non GMO Project is the leading private certification group in the United States. Products they verify as non-GMO display their logo.
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. In genetic modification of food, scientists remove one or more genes from the DNA of one organism and recombine them in the DNA of the plant they want to alter. GMO foods were introduced in the mid-1990s. The goal of the technology was to create foods that would be more nutritious, resistant to insect or disease, or require less water to be able to grow during drought. More than 90 percent of U.S.-grown soybeans and corn contain genetically modified traits.
Evidence on the safety of GMO food is extensive. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated “GMO foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.” That being said, there are still many people who choose to avoid GMO food.
Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients”
Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. Obvious gluten sources are bread, pasta and cereals made with wheat, barley or rye. If a wheat product is used as a food additive, then that product will also contain gluten. Surprising sources of gluten could be soups, salad dressings, food coloring, beer and soy sauce. Cross contamination is another source of gluten. For example, a machine used to process both wheat and oatmeal could add gluten to the naturally gluten free oatmeal.
People with the inherited autoimmune disease Celiac must have complete elimination of gluten from their diet. People with gluten sensitivity might also choose to avoid gluten.
The 2013 FDA guidelines state that a food may call itself “gluten free” if it contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This means that a one- ounce slice of gluten-free bread could have an amount of gluten in it equivalent in weight to 1 grain of sugar. This level is the lowest that can be reliably detected in food. Other words allowed on the label that follow this guideline are “free of gluten” and “no gluten.”
The USDA National Organic Program is in charge of organic food labeling requirements. The amount of organic food in a product determines the label. Products labeled as “100 percent organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients and processing aids. No non-organic ingredients or additives are permitted. Product labels with just the word “organic” must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Food products with either of these organic claims must be grown, handled and processed without the use of pesticides or other synthetic chemicals, irradiation, fertilizer made with synthetic ingredients, or bioengineering. Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and can list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel.
Sheah Rarback is a registered dietician and nutritionist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.