While we are firm believers in our own home that the best food comes without labels, even we can’t quite manage to keep them out of the pantry entirely. Honestly – pasta making is NOT something that even remotely interests me right now. Nor is making pretzels, tortillas, or bagels, or any of the other Gluten-Free substitutes I send to school with the kids so they can eat what everyone else is eating. So we have plenty of labels in our pantry – and trying to eat as clean as possible even when we’re buying pre-packaged/processed foods has made me quite the decoder. And not just on that little nutritional label on the back. Label reading, for me, starts on the front. But with all these “natural” terms floating around, it can be a bit of a puzzle to find out what it all really means – so today, I’ve broken down some of the terms I find most on both the front and back labels:
Natural: While there are no formal regulations for this label, the FDA advises that foods labeled “natural” should “not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” This does, however, mean that it can contain natural flavoring. While this label is a good starting point, you shouldn’t skip reading the ingredients label based on this word alone – after all, your definition of natural may not be the same as the food company’s.
100% or All Natural: Again, this is an unregulated term – and can depend upon the product, and the company, as to what exactly it means. The Center for Science in the Public Interestrevealed that “All Natural” labeled chicken contained Chicken, Salt, and Water. Meaning that up to 15% of the weight of a chicken breast was actually a saline solution it had been injected with. Natural sounding ingredients, combined in a way many might not consider all natural. These ingredients are, however, listed on the back – so always read the ingredients list to see if your definition of healthy matches up with that of the food company your supporting with your purchase.
Produce with an “organic” label, must be USDA certified to have been grown in soil free of prohibited synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for the past three years.
Meat which is USDA certified organic must have the “ability” to graze on pasture and be fed 100% organic feed/forage (following the guidelines for organic produce) and be antibiotic and hormone free.
As with any USDA label, organic is a term now regulated by the government – and subject to exceptions and loopholes as defined by bureaucratic regulations and legislation. Additionally, organic certification is a costly and lengthy process, one which many small farmers simply cannot afford. So just because a local farmer isn’t advertising themselves as organic, doesn’t mean they aren’t following the same (or sometimes better) practices. The best way to determine if your food meets your own personal preferences and standards is simply to talk to the farmers directly. They should be more than happy to discuss their methods with you, and many will even arrange farm tours should you prefer to see their operations in person.
100% Organic or Made with Organic Ingredients: Processed foods with more than one ingredient which are labeled as organic must be free of artificial colors, preservatives, and flavors and contain organic ingredients – but other additives are allowed such as enzymes, pectin, baking soda, and anything else that has been allowed by the USDA regulations. Processed foods labeled as being “made with organic” ingredients must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, and do not allow GMO ingredients in the remaining 30%.
Local:This is not a term which has been officially legislated for certification by a government organization, yet. In 2008 Congress passed the “Consolidation Farm & Rural Development Act” which combined the terms “local” and “regional” to both mean within 400miles of a product’s production – a definition which was adopted by the USDA in 2010.So the term “local” may vary greatly depending upon whom you are talking to. In general, it means that the food or product has been grown, produced, and processed within a certain mileage of the city in which it is being sold. This could mean 100miles, (the generally accepted limit within the “locavore” movement) or as many as 400 miles in the case of some “local” products found in grocery stores following government definitions.
Artificial Flavors: Flavor additives which are chemically derived from naturally inedible sources. These may be added to foods either because they do not have a natural source available in nature, or because it is cheaper to synthetically produce them than to produce them from “natural sources”
Natural Flavors: Flavor additives which are artificially produced from naturally edible sources. These include anything from beets to cockroaches.
Artificial Dyes: Not all dyes are required by law to be declared specifically on a label (these fall into an “exempt” category) but must be listed as “colorings” or “color added.” FDA Approved color additives or artificial dyes include: FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2, FD&C Gree Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon.n No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2, annatto extract, beta-carotene, grape skin extract, cochineal extract or carmine, paprika oleoresin, caramel color, fruit and vegetable juices, saffron.”
Anything you can’t pronounce or use as an ingredient in your own home kitchen. While the FDA actually has a great chart here (about 3/4 of the way down the page) which explaines the roles of various ingredients (preservatives, sweeteners, fat replacers, etc.) as well as how they are listed on food labels per FDA regulations, a general rule of thumb is that if you can’t pronounce it or use it outside of an industrial kitchen, you probably want to do some research before consuming it.
This is especially true if you have food allergies or sensitivities. For example, Maltodextrin is a food additive which can be made from either corn or wheat – and the labels usually don’t reveal which source is used, which could lead to complications for those with Celiac’s Disease or a gluten sensitivity.
Whole Grain: According the the Whole Grains Council (the group behind that “Whole Grains” or “100% Whole Grains” stamp on many boxes), “Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed in their original proportions.” This does not mean that a food with whole grains on its label contains the grain in its entirety – but rather that the processed version includes every part (bran, germ, and endosperm) are present in proportionate ratios within the product. According to the USDA, foods labeled as “Whole Grain Rich” must contain 8grams (half a recommended serving) per serving of whole grain, or be whole grain by at least 51% of product weight, or have a whole grain listed as the first ingredient (meaning at least 50% of the grain used must be whole grain). The 100% Whole Grain label means that there is a full serving of whole grains in each serving size of the product.
Gluten Free: As of August 5, 2014 all foods labeled gluten free must meet FDA regulations of the term. This means that any product labeled “Gluten Free” must contain less than 20ppm of gluten and does not include an ingredient which is naturally contains gluten (such as wheat, spelt, rye, or barley). This includes foods which are naturally gluten free (like bottled water, fruits, vegetables, etc), as well as processed foods. This does not mean that inherently gluten-free foods must be labeled as such, but any food which does contain the label must meet these regulations. The issue of cross-contamination in processing is regulated by the 20ppm benchmark for the label.
Of course, whenever possible, it is best to buy whole foods directly from the farmer – then you can get answers to any questions you have directly from its grower, and control any additional ingredients when cooking/processing in your own home. But when that isn’t possible, read labels carefully – and don’t be afraid to Google anything you can’t easily identify!