In last week's blog post, I talked about the importance of knowing what labels mean as it relates to making informed health decisions and taking back your own health. In today's post, I provide a comprehensive look and give my take on common food labels and marketing terms to help clear up confusion and minimize ambiguity.
Food Marketing Terms/Processing Methods: Organic, All-Natural, Grass-Fed
Arguably the biggest buzzword in the food industry in the last decade, this term has catapulted in popularity and become ubiquitous in health food stores. Unless you never physically go grocery shopping, it is hard not to run into organic something–it’s on everything: laundry detergent, candy, toothpaste, cooking oils, you name it. But what does it mean?
According to Allen and Albala (2011), organic refers to, “food produced without using the conventional inputs of modern industrial agriculture; pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, or additives” (p. 865). For this reason, organic food is generally safer to eat than conventionally produced food. In the food industry, the term has become almost synonymous with good health, and because of this companies are trying any way possible to slap the term on as many products as possible to justify a raise in prices (organic products are typically more expensive because of increased production costs). Just the other day I walked into Costco, and in the front of the store right as you walk in they have a whole section dedicated to organic products.
However, just because a product is labeled organic does not guarantee it is 100% organic. There are three major organic certification labels in the United States: 1. 100% organic – made entirely with organic ingredients (USDA label) 2. Organic – made with at least 95% organic ingredients (USDA label) 3. “Made with organic ingredients” – made with at least 70% organic ingredients (no USDA label). Food products that are made with less than 70% percent organic ingredients cannot be advertised as organic, but can list specific organic ingredients.
There is much debate over the nutritional content of organic foods. While the USDA states that there is inconclusive evidence that food grown via organic farming techniques has superior nutrition content than that of conventional farming techniques (Lester, 296), independent research shows different. In the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a study by Worthington (2001) compared the nutrient content of organic versus conventional crops. The results found, “organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops. There were also better quality and higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones” (Worthington, 2001, p. 161).
My Critique with the Term
All in all, I don’t have a lot of issues with the term itself. As long as you know what labels mean (USDA label means at least 95% organic, anything that isn’t labeled with the USDA label is 70% or below), you shouldn’t get tricked too easily. My main concern with consumers is that they equate “organic” with “healthy” and that is definitely not always the case. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and seen “organic” fruit snacks or “organic” agave nectar marketed as healthy. Remember, at the end of the day, candy is still candy and sugar is still sugar!
When at the store, I think that you should contextualize the term organic in terms of what it doesn’t have, not what it does. When you buy organic, know that you are not getting added pesticides, genetically-modified ingredients or any of the other poisonous stuff that they add to products (which I see as a plus, and always encourage people to buy organic for this reason). But you are NOT getting a magically healthy version of whatever it is you are buying just because it has that little green USDA logo. Use caution here!
Another term that has become buzz-worthy within the food and health industries is the phrase “all-natural.” The term applies by and large to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives; such as growth hormones, antibiotics, hydrogenated oils, stabilizers and emulsifiers (FMI). In addition, foods labeled all-natural are required by the USDA to explain what natural ingredients were used. Along with “organic,” food companies also use this term to try to market to health-conscious consumers.
My Critique with the Term
The problem with the term is that there is a lot of vagueness in terms of what constitutes as “all-natural,” as its definition takes on different connotations within different contexts. For example, when looking at all-natural meats, specifically beef and pork, companies will often advertise: “no nitrates or nitrites used.” These are chemical compounds used to enhance color and preserve the meat. Based on current science, in small quantities, consumption of these are not harmful to human health, therefore, in this case, “all-natural” is not necessarily all that important. On the other hand, when looking at all-natural peanut butter, the term refers to no added hydrogenated oil or trans fat. In peanut butter containing these additives, there is an increase in cholesterol and risk of heart disease, thus “all-natural” in this instance takes on significant meaning. Essentially, depending on the product, all-natural can be meaningful or not. Unlike the term “organic” that deals with the farming techniques of food and is regulated by the government, there is not a true standard of what “all-natural” entails. The fact that all food is processed in some way, either chemically or by temperature, there will always be a sense of ambiguity in determining what kinds of foods are “all-natural” (Welch and Mitchell, 2000, p.4). Proceed with caution when assessing foods that claim to be all-natural, and always check your labels for hidden culprits!
A term that has gained popularity lately not necessarily among the general public, but more among health-conscious circles is the term “grass-fed.” According to McCluskey et al. (2006), “grass-fed refers to beef from cattle that have been fed only on grasses rather than fed in a feedlot” (p. 2). According to the USDA, for cattle to be considered grass fed, their diet must be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state (USDA, 2007). This must be the feed source for the lifetime of the cattle, with the only exception being milk consumed prior to weaning (USDA, 2007).
The distinction of this label is actually one of the more significant ones as far as the nutrition values it carries versus that of its grain-fed counterpart. To begin with, grass-fed beef is much lower in fat than grain-fed beef. In addition, the fat that it does carry is compromised of mostly healthier fats. There is a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in grass fed beef. In humans, if omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats exceed 4:1, health issues can arise, like inflammation which can lead to heart disease. This is important because grain fed beef can have ratios that are over 20:1, while grass fed beef is usually around 3:1. In addition, grass fed beef contains CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, which is also a healthy fat that helps with things like insulin regulation, better immune system health, and the prevention of cancer. CLA also is ideal for body composition because it promotes fat loss and helps to maintain muscle tissue. Grass fed beef has four times the CLA content than grain fed beef.
My Critique with the Term
Grass-fed products are tricky because there are a ton of third party companies that have a seal or logo for grass-fed that is not government regulated. Similar to “all-natural,” there is a lot of vagueness and gray area when determining what foods are officially grass-fed versus others. Since 2016, there is no official grass-fed certification in the U.S. with the rescinding of the USDA AMS standards for grass-fed and the “USDA Process Verified" logo. Currently, the third-party verification label “American Grassfed” is the most credible label to date, with experts from various fields working together to guarantee that the meat comes from animals on a 100% forage diet, but again, not federally regulated. My take is proceed with caution when buying products claiming to be grass-fed, particularly if you are buying inexpensive grocery store grass-fed. Often times, these animals were either imported or supplemented with some form of grain. If you are really concerned with obtaining quality grass-fed beef, your best bet is to build relationships with your local purveyors and farmers and ask them a ton of questions.
Food Labels: Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified Naturally Grown, Farm Fresh, Look for Whole Grains
Non-GMO Project Verified
The “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal is one of the newer labels to come on the food marketing scene. The Non-GMO Project began in 2005 out of a movement in Berkeley, CA, where consumers began to question the amount of GMO in their products. The program initially materialized out of the “People Want to Know Campaign,” a letter-writing initiative which rallied over 161 grocery stores to protest current legislation. Fast forward to today, and what once began as a grassroots movement has become the authority in the testing of GMO foods. The label has become common in stores and markets, as it is affixed to a bevy of items, ranging from vitamins and supplements, to packaged/frozen goods, to pet products. The label is sought after by consumers looking to make verified Non-GMO choices.
The label has importance for us because, as it stands today, federal law does not require manufacturers to disclose the amount of GMO in their products. As a non-profit, the Non-GMO Project is currently North America’s only third party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. And on the whole, the project has had quite an impact on the marketplace. According to the project website, there are currently over 20,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products from 2,200 brands, representing well over $7 billion in annual sales.
My Critique with this Label:
All things considered, I definitely respect the guidelines and standards of this label. There are clearly defined protocols that each product must go through, and because the project is non-profit, there is not as much conflict of interest with big business. However, there are still inconsistencies, as ambiguities remain. To begin, there is vagueness as to what constitutes GMO-free. According to the Non-GMO Project website, “GMO free” and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology. Therefore, the Non-GMO Project’s verification seal is not a “GMO free” claim, it is what they consider verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance. While they do maintain an "Action Threshold" of 0.9%, (where any product containing more than 0.9% GMO must be labeled), monitoring is done independently as there is no federal guidelines.
Among industry circles, the main critique points to logistical issues (not so much as it relates to this label per-se, but more about the larger movement). From a broad perspective, there is a growing consensus of people who find the growing “GMO-Free” trend to have serious implications for both the manufacturer and consumer. For major food companies, transitioning to GMO-free products requires a complete change to their infrastructure, resulting in higher costs and logistical issues in securing enough non-GMO sources. Particularly as it relates to traditionally heavy sprayed crops, such as soy and corn, securing non-GMO varietals is a challenge because the majority of these crops in the U.S. have some level on contamination in them. In fact, according to a Reuters (2014) report, more than 90% of the corn and soybeans that are grown in the U.S. are GMO strains. This has turned the non-GMO commodity supply chain into a big business of its own. Almost definitely, this will have a trickle-down effect on us the consumer, as companies will be forced to raise food prices to offset the production costs.
However, as it relates to the label, I think that the costs justify the action. Right now the Non-GMO Project is really all we have to help fight against the production of genetically engineered foods. In addition, their sound certification guidelines and track record as a trustworthy source make this label one to pick up whenever possible.
Certified Naturally Grown
The Certified Naturally Grown label has come into popularity recently in many specialty health food stores and local food operations as a marker for quality organic foods. As the increased public awareness and interest in organic production methods continues to skyrocket, this label is increasingly being sought after by the health-savvy consumer looking to make healthier and more ethical food choices. The label is commonly found on many meat, fruit and vegetable products. According to Greener Choices (2014), the Certified Naturally Grown label means that “the farm where the food is grown uses the same farming methods as certified organic farms, but is not independently verified by a USDA-accredited certification agency and not subject to the legal enforcement of the USDA.”
The reason this certification came to fruition was out of a response to the costly and often politicized nature of the USDA Organic certification process. There were many farmers who did not want to or could not afford to participate in the USDA certification program, and wanted an alternative certification system that was cheaper and had fewer requirements. Essentially, the CNG program was designed for small farmers, such as distributors for farmer’s markets, roadside stands and community supported agriculture projects to be able to attain organic certification of their products. As it has garnered momentum, it has come to be recognized as the grassroots alternative to the USDA system. However, the main difference here is that instead of annual inspections by a USDA accredited certifying agency, they police themselves, with CNG farms being inspected by other CNG farms.
While not USDA approved, the label is actually pretty significant in that there are clearly defined standards and procedures that have to be followed. Along with their precise certification guidelines, CNG farms are lauded for their transparency, collaboration and community involvement, as all participating farms completed applications and scorecards are available online to the public, and any prospective farms interested in becoming CNG certified can download registration information off of their website (CNG, 2014). In addition, all CNG farms are subject to random inspection (CNG, 2014).
My Critique with this Label
Overarching, I really don't have a whole lot of criticism with this label. As far as ambiguity, this label is definitely one of the more valid ones. The main critique that I have noted with CNG farms and their labeling program is that they pose the risk of a conflict of interest. Due to the framework of the CNG certification system, which relies heavily on peer-reviewed inspections, there remains the possibility of unethical favors and benefits being exchanged or cutting corners by participating farms. Although with that being said, the CNG program does try to mitigate this by not allowing farmers to “trade” inspections – meaning that a farmer cannot inspect the farm of the individual who inspected his/her farm, however because the program is reliant on a trust system, the possibility remains.
Another common critique of the Certified Naturally Grown label is that it is not federally regulated. The program merely acts as a third-party verification agency, and although this may be unsettling for some consumers, the research that I have seen has uncovered overwhelmingly positive reviews of the program. Therefore, as it pertains to food labels, CNG appears to be one of the more sought after right behind the USDA Organic label. This label is definitely worth paying attention to!
The Farm Fresh label (or its many variations) is a label that is seen predominately on egg products and is meant to delineate the freshness of a particular product. The label has gained popularity as of late due to the success of farmer’s markets and the local food movement. A lot of people connect local farming with the term “farm fresh” and thus look for it at the supermarket. Due to this, food manufacturers try to slap the term on as many products as possible in an attempt to generate hype and boost purported health benefits.
My Critique with this Label
EVERYTHING. Of all of the labels on this list, the “farm fresh” label is definitely the most ambiguous. All this label really means is that the eggs were “freshly picked” after the hen lays the egg. Although “freshly picked” is highly ambiguous as well, as there is no regulation on how soon the farmer has to pick them (how fresh is fresh?). And even then, although the eggs are technically fresh when they are hatched, unless you are buying local, they most likely have been sitting in crates for days on end and shipped all over the country. However, the more pressing concern is that the label means absolutely nothing as it pertains to the welfare of the animal (in fact, most of the chickens that lay farm fresh eggs are raised inhumanely). These inhumane conditions include ones where hens are raised in battery cages and confined in extremely small spaces where they are unable to spread their wings (according to the Humane Society, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life). On top of that, because these eggs are not considered organic, hens are fed GMO-based chicken feed. Definitely not very appetizing… And definitely not “farm fresh.”
Essentially, this label is just a clever marketing term by companies to get you to buy their product. So you can feel free to disregard this label at the supermarket, because it means nothing.
Look for Whole Grains
For those of you that eat grains, you are probably familiar with the “Look for Whole Grains” stamp. The label has become increasingly popular in supermarkets and health food stores over the past decade. You typically find it affixed to mostly grain products, including: bread, pasta, cereal, etc. and its purpose is to delineate products that are whole grain (meaning that they have all parts of the grain, including the bran and germ). The program was instituted by the Whole Grains Council, and consists of 2 labels, 1) the 100% Stamp – which assures you that a food contains a full serving or more of whole grain in each labeled serving and that ALL the grain is whole grain, and 2) the basic Whole Grain Stamp – which appears on products containing at least half a serving of whole grain per labeled serving. The “Look for Whole Grains” stamp has garnered widespread usage, as of October 2014, the label is on over 10,000 products in over 42 countries.
My Critique with this Label
As far as the label itself, the language is pretty straightforward in that it is not misleading. Overall, it serves its purpose by informing the amount of whole grains in a particular product. However, where I think we tend to miss the boat as a consumer is by associating the whole grains label with the overall healthiness of the product. We think that just because a product is listed as whole grain, it must be good for us. However, research shows that may not necessarily be the case. For example, Mozaffarian et al. (2013) conducted an study on products containing the “Look for Whole Grains” label, and found that while WG-stamped products in fact contained higher fiber and lower trans-fat totals, they were also higher in sugars and calories when compared to products without the stamp.
Although I think that the larger problem with the regulating of “whole grains” in our food products is that there are no federal guidelines. As it stands, there is no single standard for defining a product “whole grain,” as the “Look for Whole Grains” Stamp is a third-party verification agency and not federally regulated. As a result, you can walk into your local Ralph’s and find a box of Lucky Charm’s with the “Look for Whole Grains” logo proudly affixed on the right hand corner. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather get my fiber from sweet potatoes and broccoli, not ‘me’ Lucky Charms.
Additionally, there is a lot of ambiguity in how manufacturers label wheat. From the standard whole wheat classification, you have your multigrain, 7 grain, stoneground, semolina, durum wheat, and enriched flour just to name a few. Technically, some of these are considered “whole” and some aren’t (to decipher would take an entire separate blog post). Furthermore, unless you are buying organic, you can go ahead and assume that you are eating GMO grains. That is why personally I choose to refrain from wheat and grains altogether to prevent this madness! But if you must consume grains, opt for the sprouted variety that you can find at most health food stores and always go organic. You can use the “Look for Whole Grains” stamp as a guide, but be sure to check food labels for other possible ingredients.
I know what you are thinking: buying food shouldn’t be this damn difficult! And I agree, but unfortunately that is the reality that we now live in. What stinks is that things are only getting worse. With the current farming landscape in this country, experts are predicting an even bigger increase in contaminated products as we move ahead. However, it is important to remember that you hold all of the power in what you choose to buy. By being a more educated buyer, you can make better informed decisions about the food you purchase.
Overarching, as a consumer, you must always be looking to exercise your power to help combat these unsavory conditions. As bad as things have gotten, it’s now on us now to take action. Along with doing your part individually, look to start up some local CSAs in your community, work with your local legislation to bring more Farmer’s markets and local food to your neighborhood, or even grow your own food!! Because as it stands now, the food industry has no plans of slowing down, and they definitely don't have our best interest at hand.