Free range. All natural. Fat-Free. These are just a few of the seemingly endless food labels staring at us from the grocery store shelves. It seems they’re on everything — our eggs, meat, fruits and veggies, and snack foods. But what does it all mean? Get the facts behind those labels and why they may or may not offer real health benefits.
Nutrition Label #1: Free Range
For anyone who consumes animal products, the term “free range” may require a second thought. It is nice to think the bolded “free range” on your egg carton means the chickens that hatched them had a blissful life roaming around a beautiful, clean farmyard. However, that is only sometimes the case.
“Free range” applies only to poultry raised for meat under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and means the poultry has had some outdoor access. But there are no specific requirements for the quality or size of the outdoor space or how long the chickens are allowed to spend there.
Even though the term “free range” is printed across eggs cartons in many grocery stores, the USDA does not place any standards on the term for hens making eggs. It simply means they are un-caged inside barns or warehouses with some outdoor time, and are allowed to nest. However, restrictions on food or beak cutting do not exist.
Eggs, poultry, and other meats like beef and pork, require no governmental certification to guarantee that the product is free range, allowing some companies to make false claims and leaving the consumer in the dark about how the animals were raised.
Nutrition Label #2: Organic
If a food label reads “USDA Organic” or “100 percent organic,” it has the highest mark of organic approval. It basically guarantees the product was made without synthetic fertilizers, radiation, and genetic engineering and sewage sediment.
In meats and poultry, the organic seal means the product has no antibiotics and growth hormones and it requires 100% organic feed for the animals. Produce can be called organic if it grew on soil that had no substances like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for the past three years.
For organic packaged foods, like crackers or cereal, standards include more specifications, prohibiting them from containing artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors. For example, when the cereal box says, “made with organic,” it will not have the USDA seal but it contains a minimum of 70% organically produced ingredients, and the other 30% must be produced without using the USDA’s prohibited practices, like genetic engineering. The cereal still identifies the USDA-accredited certifier, however, they will include some ingredients that are not 100% organic. To make sure a packaged grocery item marked “made with organic _____ (particular food group),” meets USDA’s regulations, check for verification of the certifier on the box.1
The big question is: Are organic foods healthier than conventional foods? The USDA actually makes no claims that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than conventional foods, and many have the same amount of fat and calories. However, studies show organic foods have a much higher level of cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Nutrition Label #3: Low-Sodium
The Food and Drug Administration defines the label “Low-Sodium” as fewer than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving, and “Sodium-free” as fewer than 5 mg per serving. It is important to recognize that if more than one serving a food is eaten, the sodium intake instantly increases. Also, remember to check the sodium level, because even a package that says “Unsalted” or “No Salt Added,” does not necessarily mean it is sodium free. Common foods with high levels of sodium include pizza, cheese, soup, cold cuts, poultry, and snacks like pretzels, chips, and popcorn.
While sodium (See: Electroytes) is a necessity to maintain body fluid balance and keep muscles, nerves, and organs working properly, Americans tend to overdo it. In fact, around 90 percent of them eat too much of it. It is important to make sure daily sodium intake does not surpass the recommended 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day, which is equal to one teaspoon of salt. Americans eat an average daily amount of 3,300 mg.2
Nutrition Label #4: Grass Fed
The term “grass fed” is turning up more and more on restaurant menus and grocery store aisles, most commonly with beef and bison products. To be considered “grass fed” meat products, the USDA requires animals like bison and cattle to be fed only grass and other foraged foods during their lifetime. The animals are fed no grains and must have consistent access to a pasture.
Animals, which are not “grass fed,” usually have a diet including grains. While it feels healthier to chow down on a grass-fed burger on Friday night, it is still unclear whether or not grass-fed beef adds nutritional benefits. However, studies show it may have heart health benefits, including less total fat, more omega-3 fatty acids, and more antioxidant vitamins like Vitamin E. It also has shown to have more conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat, which helps to decrease cancer and heart disease risks.3
Nutrition Label #5: All Natural
While the term “All Natural” does not have any relationship to animal welfare when used on meat and poultry products, it does mean there is no artificial flavoring, chemical preservative, or coloring ingredient in the food under USDA rules. It also does not always mean the product is hormone-free or antibiotic-free. However, the USDA seal when placed on meat, poultry, and eggs, stating, “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed” regulates the word “natural.”
Each “All Natural” product’s company must elaborate on what they mean by it. However, this particular label can be misleading, especially when placed on packaged foods like granola bars yogurt and salad dressing. The Federal Trade Commission and the USDA’s definitions of “All Natural” are still hazy, which leaves its interpretation up to the food industry.
Look out for the very unnatural ingredients like modified starches, corn syrup, fructose, invert sugar, cellulose, carrageenan (in cheese), erythretrol, and crystalline fructose (in sports drinks), when deciding on whether or not your next grocery purchase is truly “All Natural.” 4
Nutrition Label #6: Sugar Free
It seems almost all of America’s favorite foods now come in “Sugar Free” form. Sugar-free foods and drinks abound, including soft drinks, gum, baked goods, candy, fruit juice, ice cream, and yogurt.
The FDA controls the use of these words, and a sugar-free food must have fewer than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving while “reduced-sugar foods” must have at least 25 percent less sugar than the regular product.
Keep in mind, if sugar-free cookies, for example, are on the market shelf, they will always have a second statement explaining they are not a reduced or low calorie food, or used for stabilizing weight, unless of course it meets those requirements.
All sugar-free foods are made with artificial sweeteners and other sugar replacements. While no evidence shows FDA approved artificial sweeteners in the U.S. cause serious health problems, studies dating back to the 1970s show a correlation to bladder cancer. Plus, some more recent studies show consuming artificial sweeteners may aid in weight loss because they have no calories, while one gram of regular sugar, or ¼ of a teaspoon, contains four calories. But contradicting studies show artificial sweeteners are actually associated with increased weight for an unknown reason.
And don’t be deceived by foods labeled “Naturally sweetened,” with things like agave nectar, honey, and maple syrup, because they are also processed and refined. However, they are generally safe when used sparingly, as with all kinds of added sugars.
Nutrition Label #7: Fat Free
The term “fat-free” can be enticing, especially to those trying to shed some weight. However, foods labeled fat-free can still be very high in calories and tend to be low in nutrients. Think fat-free cookies, chips, and other processed snack food. Instead, it is better to opt for fresh and naturally low-fat or fat-free foods like fruits and veggies, fish, and whole grain cereals and pasta. The FDA requires foods labeled “Fat-free” to have less than ½ gram of fat per serving, while foods labeled “Low-fat” must have 3 grams or less.
When trying to lose weight, decreasing the amount of fat is obviously one way to limit calories but eating fat-free and reduced-fat foods is not always the key, especially when more of the lower-fat or fat-free foods are consumed. Remember, low fat or non-fat does not mean low-calorie. For example, two tablespoons of regular peanut butter totals 191 calories, while the reduced fat version is a mere four calories less at 187.5
The solutions to wading through food labels at the grocery store seem to be moderation and awareness. Overdosing on any specific food item is never a good choice for our health, and knowing the story behind the labels can help us make better food decisions.