Made with Whole Grains! All Natural! GMO Free! No Added Sugars! Those sleek signs emblazoned across the packaging of your favorite foods seem pretty straight-forward. After all, we’re a bunch of smart cookies, and we passed 6th grade comprehension. But do we really understand what those labels mean ? If you do, you’ve either taken my Nutrition for Foodies & Food Writers course, or you’ve done your research – and both of those deserve a high five. If not, let’s have a quick chat about these quippy marketing terms, and if they’re worth the paper they’re printed on. While we’re here, I’m gonna toss up the important things you need to know about the new nutrition label rules that will be in full-effect in July.
This means it’s healthy and pure, right? Wrong. There’s no official definition, though the FDA allows this label to be put on packages of foods that are free from synthetic or artificial ingredients. So it can be used on salt, sugar, soda pop, hand towels. Don’t put too much weight on this label. It just means there’s nothing created in a lab inside the product, not that it’s free of things that aren’t necessarily healthy.
I almost forgot a little housekeeping: I don’t use the terms bad and good in reference to food on purpose. When you start categorizing the foods you’re eating as bad or good, you fall into a trap that ruins your relationship to food and causes many problems when deciding what to feed your body and your family. That said, there are definitely things you should not be consuming any of (trans fats) or much of (saturated fats, processing chemicals, artificial sweeteners). There are obvious exceptions to that rule, too, because some trans fats are naturally occurring in animal fats. You can learn more about this type of stuff by signing up for my nutrition course, or you can dive deeper and grab some facetime with me as your coach. Let’s get back to those labels, though.
As I resist the urge to tirade about how GMOs aren’t bad for you, and most people are raging against Monsanto and their practices when they rage against the GMO, I will let you know that absolutely everything you could possibly eat has been genetically modified to withstand climate and pests. This label indicates that the products you are consuming haven’t been genetically altered to include the DNA of some other organism. Take this label with a grain of salt, because in order to be a candidate for being a GMO you have to have that G – genes – which don’t exist in minerals. If you see non-GMO sugar and salt, those things don’t have genes to alter.
This label signifies that synthetic pesticides weren’t used on the products, but the USDA really doesn’t regulate the use of this label, and there might be cross-contamination from other products handled in the same facilities. Other labels like 100% Organic and USDA Organic mean no synthetic products were used, but natural substances were probably used for pest control. There’s no guarantee that these products won’t have residual pesticides, so make sure that you’re thoroughly rinsing your foods under running water. Use a veggie brush for fruits and vegetables, and some of that veggie cleaner spray if you have some.
You’d think this means that they used whole grains only in the products, but these products can still contain refined grains. Refining grains removes the important parts that contain minerals, vitamins, and fiber. If you want to be sure you’re eating the real deal, the whole grain should be the first thing listed, and the package should say 100% whole grain. They also usually get a little grain seal somewhere on the package.
This means that the manufacturers have let the whole grains sprout before they pulverize them. Evidence suggests this increases the vitamin and mineral content, but mostly this is trendy. Processed grains are still processed grains, and not as beneficial to you as whole grains are. If you’re looking for it, the grain that’s sprouted should be the first ingredient in the list.
Cage Free / Free Range
These are animal products that have not been contained in any way, and have been roaming the countryside grazing. The USDA only makes the farmers prove the animals have access to the outside, and doesn’t make sure the animals are actually using that land.
Grass Fed / Grass Finished
This usually pertains to any animal that produces meat that is not a fish. Grass fed means they weren’t fed for most of their lives in a feedlot. Grass finished means they weren’t eventually tossed in a feedlot and quickly fattened before slaughter. Both of these have better nutritional value than an animal that has been grain fed its whole life.
Sell By / Best If Used By / Use By
The sell by date has nothing to do with you. It lets the store know how long to display the product as determined by the manufacturer. You’ll often see see the date of purchase on deli items for this reason. The best if use by date is the date recommended for best taste. After this date, the flavor and quality declines quickly. The use by date is the final date you should consider using this product. If you see use or freeze by date, consider that a hard and fast rule. It you choose to freeze the item, you need to make sure you consume it within a day or two of defrosting.
The New Nutrition Label
Okay, so this isn’t that new as news goes, but it’s important because companies have to start the compliance process, even though they have until 2020 (for certain companies) to be completely switched. There are only about 6 major changes to the label, and the premise is that it will make the label easier to read. Let’s start at the top.
- Serving Information
The serving size and number of servings per container have increased to reflect reasonable sizes that real people eat. They’re also listed in bolder/larger type.
- Calories are now bolder and larger.
Calories from fat has been removed because they type of fat is much more important than the quantity.
- Added Sugars
Added sugars is listed as a %DV and in grams. The label includes sugars added in the manufacturing and packaging processes, and also sugars from honey, syrups, and juice concentrates. Data indicates that it’s hard to meet your nutritional requirements and stay inside the calorie limits if your daily added sugars exceeds 10% of your daily calories.
They updated which nutrients are required to be listed. Americans don’t get their required amount of Vitamin D on a regular basis, but have no issue consuming enough of Vitamins A and C, and deficiencies are rare. They also must list the actual amount in milligrams (mg) and micrograms (mcg) and the %DV for iron, calcium, potassium, and Vitamin D.
- The Footnote has changed so that it explains what the %DV is, so you can put the label information into context in your diet.
How hard do you look at the labels of what you eat? Do they make a difference in what you consume?