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Navigating Labels: Finding Food Truth with the Food Sleuth

March 26, 2012 | Stonyfield Ola

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

by Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Let's face it: grocery shopping can be downright complicated. We have to navigate competing labels, confusing product and health claims, and misleading package colors and designs.

What’s a health-savvy, time-strapped, budget-conscious consumer to do? Learn a few tricks of the trade, and you won’t get duped. Here’s how:

1. Know your GMOs. Genetically engineered foods (known as GE or GMOs) have never been tested for long term safety in the environment or on public health. To avoid feeding your family GMOs, check ingredient labels for the most likely GMO offenders: corn, soy, canola, sugar (from sugar beets), and cottonseed oil.

Unlike European countries, the U.S. does not require GMO labels (although 92% of Americans support labeling) so our safest bet for avoiding GMO ingredients remains choosing foods bearing an organic label. By law, genetic engineering is not permitted in any organic food production.

2. Beware the “natural” label. Of all label claims, "natural" proves most misleading to consumers. While there are strict legal regulations governing the “organic” label, few exist for the word “natural.”

For example, the FDA restricts the term “natural” to products that contain no artificial or synthetic substances, such as color additives and flavors. But FDA allows the “natural” label on products containing GMOs, such as soft drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup made from genetically engineered corn. Crazy, right?

The USDA, which regulates meat and poultry products, says "natural" may be used on the label if the product does not contain any artificial ingredients or added color, and is only "minimally processed." But the USDA’s "natural" label only applies to meat and poultry after slaughter. In other words, the “natural” label has no reference to how the animals are raised or fed.

Most meat and poultry labeled “natural” comes from animals that have been raised on conventional feed, most commonly GMO corn and soy.

Bottom line: if you want to avoid consuming genetically engineered ingredients choose foods with the “organic” label.

What’s more, meat, poultry and dairy labeled “organic” gives us legal assurance that the animals have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones.

3. Look past pretty packages. Boxes and containers with earthy tones and green leaves can paint a misleading picture of “natural” goodness. Look past the illusion and reach for the organic label instead for your best quality guarantee.

4. Ignore shelf ‘health’ rating systems. Some stores now use rating systems on their shelves to identify “healthier” product choices. Products generally score higher points if they are lower in calories, sodium, cholesterol, etc. However, none of the rating systems factor in organic agricultural methods, which convey both nutritional benefit and environmental protection. Plus, nutrients like omega-3s are not even a glimmer in the conversation. What’s a consumer to do? Choose the least processed organic foods to achieve the highest food quality for your family.

5. Think beyond price at the check-out. Look at your food purchases as an investment in your family’s health and future. Most dietitians agree that we can no longer afford “cheap” food because it’s creating illness and related skyrocketing medical expenses. Think of high quality organic food as delicious preventive medicine.

Consumers unite! If you don’t see what you want at the grocery store, just ask. Most market managers want to please their customers – that’s you and me. The more people who ask for organic choices, and even specific organic brands, the more likely we’ll find them on the shelves.

Until recently, produce aisles rarely offered even a single organic item. Now look at the growing choices in our marketplace. Our organic options grew for one reason: consumers asked. Don’t be shy!

More about Melinda... Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian, “investigative nutritionist,” award-winning writer and host of nationally syndicated, Food Sleuth Radio. A former Food and Society Policy Fellow, Melinda connects the dots between food, health and agriculture, and uniquely teaches critical thinking skills to promote "food system literacy" to find “food truth.” With 30 years’ experience in clinical, academic and public health nutrition, Melinda is a trusted consumer advocate, and engaging national speaker.

Learn more about Melinda’s show, Food Sleuth, here: http://www.kopn.org/ - click on “Food Sleuth.”

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