Last week the Food and Drug Administration released new standards for the labeling of nutrition facts on food packages. While these changes will clarify the nutritional value of some foods, it still leaves unanswered much of the terminology that is found on food labels.
It’s become increasingly difficult to know exactly where our food comes from and what is in it. The invention of the assembly line in 1914 has brought 100 years of industrial and technological advances that spurred processed foods, genetically modified produce and mass-produced shelf-stable and frozen foods shipped to and from every corner of the world.
All of the preservatives, chemicals and scientific experimentation that goes into keeping food shelf stable brings us even further away from food in its original and natural state.
Add to that the information found on food labels, publicized in the news, distributed through medical studies and blasted on the internet by special interest groups, and the truth about food becomes unclear, contradictory and confusing.
It’s virtually impossible to know and understand everything about how our food is produced, labeled and distributed.
As consumers, we have to be our own watchdog amongst a barrage of information. Having a basic understanding of a few simple facts can help us make decisions when choosing what to put on our plate.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Center for Food Safety (CFS), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Environmental Working Group (EWG) are some of the primary agencies and organizations that work to regulate food growth and production and inform consumers on key issues regarding food.
What is Organic?
To be labeled organic, a product, its producer, and the farm where the ingredients come from must meet the USDA’s organic standards and must be certified by a USDA approved food-certifying agency.
Organic foods cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge, cannot be genetically modified, and cannot be irradiated. Organic meat and poultry must be fed only organically-grown feed (without any animal byproducts) and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics. Furthermore, the animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (animals with multi-chambered stomachs that chew their cud) must have access to pasture (but don’t actually have to go outdoors and graze on pasture to be considered organic).
It takes years of rigorous testing on soil, water, produce, feed and animals to become certified organic. It is also a very expensive process that many small producers and farmers cannot afford. Therefore, many local farmers and ranchers will say they follow “organic practices.” The only way these actions can be proven is to ask questions and be aware as a consumer.
Equally, organic does not mean the same in other countries as it does in the U.S.
How Can You Tell It’s Organic?
Look for the “certified organic” label or an overhead sign or bin that says organic. Fruits and vegetables must be individually marked with an organic sticker or imprint. Organic produce has a unique Price Look Up (PLU) code sticker. Instead of a 4-digit number beginning with a “4,” organic produce has a 5-digit number that begins with a “9.”
For processed foods, look for the USDA “certified organic” seal on the front of the package, which guarantees that 95 to100 percent of the ingredients in the product are organic.
A product labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients” can contain up to 30 percent non-organic ingredients that are on the USDA’s list of approved non-organic ingredients. Each organic ingredient must be listed on the ingredient label.
Free vs. Low vs. Lite vs. Lean
Free: Seen as fat-free, sugar-free, calorie-free. This term means that a product does not have any of that nutrient, or so little that it’s unlikely to make any difference to your body. For example, “calorie-free” means less than 5 calories per serving. “Sugar-free” and “fat-free” both mean less than 0.5 grams per serving.
Only these nutrients can be described using the term “free” – fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, calories. Other terms that mean “free” include “without,” “no,” and “zero.”
Low: Seen on labels as low-fat, low-sodium, low-cholesterol, low-calorie. This term can be used on foods that can be eaten often and you still won’t get more than the recommended amount of that nutrient.
The nutrients that can be described with this label are fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, calories. Other terms that mean “low” include “little,” “few,” “low source of,” and “contains a small amount of.”
Here are some specific definitions:
Low-fat: 3 grams or less per serving
Low-saturated fat: 1 gram or less per serving, with not more than 15 percent of the calories coming from saturated fat
Low-sodium: 140 milligrams or less per serving
Very low sodium: 35 milligrams or less per serving
Low-cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving
Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
Lean: Seen on labels aslean beef, extra-lean beef. These terms can be used to describe how much fat is in meat, poultry, seafood, and game meats.
To be labeled lean the product must be less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol per 100 gram serving (about 3 3/4 ounces by weight, just under a quarter of a pound.)
Extra lean: Less than 5 grams fat, less than 2 grams saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 gram serving.
High: Seen on labels as high calcium or high-fiber. This term can be used if the food contains 20 percent or more of the daily value of a certain nutrient per serving. “Rich in” and “excellent source of” may also be used.
Good source: One serving of a food contains 10 percent to 19 percent of the Daily Value for a certain nutrient.Other terms that may be used are “more,” “enriched,” “fortified,” “extra,” “plus,” or “added.”
Reduced: Seen on labels asreduced fat, reduced calorie or reduced sodium. Used when a food has been altered to take out at least 25 percent of a certain component – like fat, salt, or calories. Companies may not use the term “reduced” on a product if the original version already meets the requirement for a “low” claim.
Less: Seen on labels asless sodium, less fat, 25 percent less.This means that a food, whether altered or not, contains 25 percent less of a nutrient or calories than another food. It could be the “regular” version of the same food, or a different food. For example, pretzels that have 25 percent less fat than potato chips could carry a “less” claim on their label.The word “fewer” is also used.
Light and Lite: This term can mean lower calories, fat, or sodium. If less than 50 percent of the calories in the food are from fat, it can mean that a food has been changed so it contains either 1/3 fewer calories or no more than half the fat of the regular version of this food.If the food gets 50 percent or more of its calories from fat, then the product must have half the fat of the regular version in order to use the term “light.”
The term “light” can also be used when the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food has been reduced by 50 percent. “Light in sodium” may also be used on food in which the sodium content has been reduced by at least 50 percent even if it isn’t low-fat or low-calorie. “Lightly salted” means there’s half as much sodium than is normally added to the food. It may not be low enough to qualify as “low sodium.”
The term “light” still can be used to describe such properties as texture and color, as long as the label explains the intent – for example, “light brown sugar” and “light and fluffy.”
Criteria for Gluten-Free Labeling
In August of 2013 the FDA issued a ruling that defines what characteristics a food has to have be labeled “gluten- free.” The rule also holds foods labeled “without gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “no gluten” to the same standard.
As one of the criteria for using the claim “gluten-free,” the FDA is setting a gluten limit of less than 20 ppm (parts per million) in foods that carry this label. This is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods.
Gluten is the protein that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains.
According to the FDA, to be labeled ‘Gluten-Free’ a product cannot contain:
An ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains.
An ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten.
An ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more ppm gluten.
Foods such as bottled spring water, fruits and vegetables, and eggs can also be labeled “gluten-free” if they inherently don’t have any gluten.
Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMO) and Genetically-Engineered (GE) Foods
GMO and GE refers to plants that have had genes implanted to improve their performance by making them resistant to certain pesticides, diseases, or insects.
The U.S. government does not require labeling of GE foods or ingredients, however more than 60 other nations do require GE labeling (CFS).
Scientists have not determined whether GE food poses risks to human health. Four major concerns include the lack of mandated safety studies before GMO crops are put on the market, herbicide-tolerant crops that have spurred “superweeds” which require farmers to use stronger, old-fashioned toxic pesticides, increased herbicide use, and possible cross-contamination with organic crops that yield loss of revenue for organic farmers.
The debate also lies in whether GE technology is actually creating high yield crops or is the increase in yield attributable to improvements in conventional agriculture (Union of Concerned Scientists 2009). Many of the benefits provided by GE technology have been overshadowed by increased use of toxic pesticides and the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Whatever your opinion on GMO and GE food, the fact is that they’re almost unavoidable. In 2013, the Center for Food Safety estimated that more than 75 percent of food in supermarkets could contain genetically modified ingredients. For instance, corn and soybean ingredients, sugar, and vegetable oils (corn, vegetable, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, peanut and canola) are the most commonly genetically engineered products.
Three ways to avoid GE or GMO food is to buy food that is labeled “USDA Organic”, buy food that is labeled ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’, or consult the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food available atwww.ewg.org .
The most common GE ingredients in food are field corn/corn-derived ingredients, soybeans/soybean-derived ingredients, sugar and vegetable oils.
According to the USDA, the U.S. is the world’s largest corn producer and 90 percent of corn grown is genetically engineered. The EPA has found that most of the crop is cultivated for animal feed, but 12 percent is processed for corn flour, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, masa, corn meal and corn oil.
Less than one percent of the American corn crop is sweet corn, known as table corn.
Soybeans are the second most planted crop and 93 percent of soybeans grown in this country have been GE. They are used in products whose labels disclose the presence of soy proteins, soybean oil, soy milk, soy flour, soy sauce, tofu or soy lecithin.
The USDA has found that 55 percent of the sugar produced in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, 95 percent of which have been genetically engineered. If a product label does not specify it has been made with pure cane sugar then it is likely it contains beet sugar that has been genetically modified.
Meat, Poultry and Pork Labels
Natural: The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Meat and poultry labeled “natural” should not have added flavoring, color, ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients and does not fundamentally alter the raw product.
“Natural” has no bearing on the way the animal was raised, whether antibiotics were administered or the type of food that it was fed. Also, “natural” does not mean organic.
Hormone-Free/No Added Hormones: Some farmers give hormones to beef cattle and sheep to speed their growth and to dairy cows to increase milk production. The USDA does not allow hormones in hogs, chickens and turkeys so the use of the label on these meats is just advertising.
There is no specific hormone–free certification, though grass–fed labels, as well as organic and humane certification do not allow hormone use.
No Feedlots: Feedlots are outdoor confinement operations that are most often used to “grain finish,” or fatten up cattle for slaughter during the last three to four months of its life. Meat bearing this label indicates that the animal went straight from the farm or ranch where it was raised to a USDA certified slaughterhouse.
Pasture-Raised: In general, pasturing is a traditional farming technique where animals are raised outdoors in a humane, ecologically sustainable manner and eat foods that nature intended them to eat. Animals are raised on pasture rather than being fattened on a feedlot or in a confined facility.
Products with an Animal Welfare Approved label must be raised on pasture or range. Certified organic meat must also come from animals that have continuous access to pasture.
Grass-Fed: These animals eat grasses from weaning to slaughter. Their diet should not be supplemented with grain, animal byproducts, or synthetic hormones. They should not be given antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease, but may be given antibiotics to treat disease.
“Grass-fed” labels require that animals eat a diet exclusively of forage. USDA’s grass-fed marketing standard requires only that animals “must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” It does not necessarily mean that the animals spent their entire lives in pastures or on rangeland. “Grass-fed” does not guarantee the animal was pastured or pasture-raised.
While most grass-fed animals are pasture-raised, some may still be confined and fed a steady diet of grasses. While the USDA concurs with these standards, they are only voluntary. Farmers and ranchers may request that their use of the grass-fed label be verified through an independent auditing process, but are not required to do so.
Grain-Fed: Industrial animal farms rely on corn and soy as a cheap source of protein-rich feed. However, ruminants like cows have stomachs that evolved
to digest grasses and other forage. As a result, when these animals are fed a grain-heavy diet, they sometimes have digestive problems. If you want meat or poultry that was raised with a sustainable diet, look for “pastured” or “grass-fed.”
No Meat/Animal By-Products: This label should indicate that the animals were raised on feed that contained no animal byproducts (beaks, bones, tails, etc.). However, unlike the organic label, this claim is not verified by any third party source.
100% Vegetarian Feed: Animals are not fed any animal byproducts. This does not guarantee that they were raised outdoors or on pasture, but it should indicate that they were raised on grasses, hay, silage and other feed found on pasture or in a field. Grain, like corn, is vegetarian and falls into this category. This label does not reveal whether the animals were fed supplements or additives.
Cage Free: Birds are raised without cages. What this doesn’t explain is whether the birds were raised outdoors on pasture, if they had access to the outside, or if they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions. If you want to buy eggs, poultry or meat that was raised outdoors, look for a label that says “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”
Free-Roaming: The animal (non-poultry) had some access to the outdoors each day. However, this doesn’t guarantee that the animal actually spent any time outside. As long as a door to the outdoors is left open for some period of time.
Free-Range: In the U.S., this term applies only to poultry raised for consumption, not egg-laying chickens, and is regulated by the USDA. It indicates simply that the animals have been “allowed access to the outside.” The USDA does not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside.
Heritage: Heritage foods are derived from rare and endangered breeds of livestock and crops. Animals are purebreds, a specific breed of animal that is near extinction. Production standards are not required by law, but most heritage farmers use sustainable methods.
Dry Aged: Meat, most often beef, is aged in a refrigerated cooler at a certain temperature for up to a month. Cold dry aging allows moisture to evaporate from the meat, which concentrates the flavor. At the same time, natural enzymes in the meat break down fibrous and connective tissue – ensuring that the meat will be as tender as possible. Since cold storage space is expensive, only prime cuts like loin or rib meat are dry aged.
Farmed Fish: This refers to fish for human consumption that are raised in tanks or large wire pens anchored in coastal areas or other large bodies of water. Also called aquaculture, fish farming is expanding to offset the global decline in the wild fish catch. Fifty percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is now farmed. Ironically, feeding carnivorous farmed fish such as salmon requires harvesting millions of tons of smaller wild fish, such as anchovies and sardines, to produce fishmeal and fish oil. Catfish and other farmed fish are fed mostly soybeans and corn, while farmed tilapia eats a variety of algae, seaweeds and other aquatic plants.
Antibiotic Use in Meat
Producer-Specific Labels: (Variations of raised without antibiotics, no antibiotics ever, No antibiotics administered, No antibiotics, No antibiotics added.) While these terms on labels may mean what they say, without a uniform standard or definition, consumers can’t be sure what they actually mean. Practices can vary widely from producer to producer. They are free to develop their own antibiotics standards and terminology and present them to the agency, since it does not publish clear definitions.
No Routine Antibiotic Use: Antibiotics were not given to the animal to promote growth or to prevent disease, but may have been administered if the animal became ill.
No Antibiotic Use: No antibiotics were administered to the animal during its lifetime. If an animal becomes sick, and needs antibiotics, it cannot be sold under this label.
USDA “Process Verified” antibiotic claims: Through the Process Verified Program producers can pay the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to verify that they are following their own animal production protocols, such as abstaining from antibiotic use. Once approved, producers can place their own version of the “USDA Process Verified” shield, or logo, next to an antibiotic claim on their meat.
An antibiotic claim accompanied by a “USDA Process Verified” logo usually has been vetted more rigorously than producers’ label claims without the logo. This can include on-site audits of processing and production facilities.
The “USDA Process Verified” shield, by itself, on a meat label does not indicate anything about antibiotic usage. Consumers should look for both the antibiotic claim and “USDA Process Verified” logo to be sure they are buying meat that was raised without antibiotics.
Unapproved Antibiotic Claims: (No Antibiotic Residues, Antibiotic Free, Drug Free, Chemical Free, No Antibiotic Growth Promotants) The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service have declared these phrases are not allowed on meat labels. If they are found on a package, they indicate that the producer is not following good labeling practices, may not have a good understanding of the law or may be trying to confuse the issue.
Good To Know Terminology
Biodynamic: This holistic method of agriculture is based on the philosophy that all aspects of the farm should be treated as an interrelated whole. Having emerged as a non-chemical agriculture movement before the development of “organic” agriculture, biodynamics has now spread throughout the world. Biodynamic farmers work in harmony with nature and use a variety of techniques, such as crop rotation and on-farm composting, to foster a sustainable and productive environment. Food labeled “biodynamic” must be certified.
Sustainable: While the word sustainable does not have a hard and fast definition, truly sustainable foods are raised locally by family farmers who promote the health of their animals, land and local communities. To be sure this label meets your expectations, ask your grocer or farmer for more information about how their animals were raised.
Irradiation: Food labels that include the radura logo indicate that a product has been irradiated. When meat is irradiated, it is exposed to very high doses of radiation that kill all good and bad bacteria. Irradiation is currently approved for beef, eggs, lamb, pork, poultry and many other products, including fruits and vegetables.
Whole Grain: 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. If the grain has been processed, the food product should deliver the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed.
This definition means that 100 percent of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain.
Whole grain is not the same as whole wheat. Wheat is just one of the 14 approved whole grains. Also, not all whole grains contain gluten.
Definitions provided by USDA, FDA, EWG Meat Eaters Guide,www.sustainabletable.org , American Cancer Society, and Whole Grain Council.