By Chris Zellers, MPP -Assistant Professor/Educator, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, Family & Community Health Sciences Department
There are a lot of buzz words that pertain to food products we consume, many of which imply the health benefit of the merchandise. Words like organic, all natural, sugar free, no additives, probiotics, GMO-free, grass-fed, made with real fruit, Omega- 3s, whole grain, whole wheat, multigrain, antioxidants, BPA-free, and local all imply a benefit to consumers. The meaning of these words can be surprising. While some label markers are required to support health claims others are not governed or regulated in any way. For instance, what does all-natural mean? Poison ivy is all-natural but it’s not something good to ingest. Some labeling words indicate how items were grown or raised while others indicate what is in the food or what the container is made of. Product labels may propose health benefits when really there is no advantage to eating that product. Taking a better look at some of these buzz words may help inform you on what you are purchasing and eating.
Working through the maze of food labels and markers is not easy. ‘Organic’, for instance, does not mean without use of pesticides. Some organic farmers may use pesticides however to be ‘certified organic’ a farmer needs to grow food free of sewage sludge, radiation, genetically modified substances, and synthetic fertilizers. Many consumers think organic means without any pesticides but by virtue of its legal definition a pesticide is anything that kills a pest. Realizing that pesticides may be used on ‘organic’ labeled products can make you a more informed shopper. ‘Sugar free’ sounds like it would be devoid of sugar however ‘sugar free’ means one serving of the product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar from either natural sugar or added sugar. ‘Reduced sugar’ indicates the product contains at least 25% less sugar than the regular product, for instance using cereal it would mean that the reduced sugar version of the product does contain 25% less than its full sugar counter product. ‘No sugar’ means no sugar or ingredients containing sugar was added during the processing or packaging of the product. Often products that have a ‘sugar claim’ do still contain a sugar substitute or low-calorie sweetener that is used to maintain sweetness by using a processed sweetener. Additionally, just because the product has a claim of less sugar, or no sugar does not mean it is a healthy choice. Some foods have removed sugar but added fat or sodium to keep the taste without the sugar. ‘Superfood’ has no scientific basis and no certification or regulations around what gives it clout as a superfood. Foods like salmon or blueberries are often referred to as a ‘superfood’ most likely because of the nutritional value, however, any food could claim its ‘superfood’ stardom without true support of the claim. Food systems indicators or where food comes from is also a marker some consumers use to determine how sustainable, fresh, or environmentally correct food is. For example, often people purchase ‘local’ food under the assumption that it is grown by a local farmer. ‘Local’ definitions are not as close by as one might think, and in fact there is no set length of travel for a food to be ‘local’. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines ‘local’ by saying “There is no pre-determined distance to define what consumers consider “local,” but a set number of miles from a center point or state/local boundaries is often used.” If you really want to know how ‘local’ a product is, read the label for the location it was produced. In New Jersey, the ‘Jersey Fresh’ label is a true representation that the product is grown in the Garden State which makes it a good food indicator of its local roots.
While not all food labels are trying to erroneously market food products, being an informed consumer will assist with eating and spending wisely. For example, when looking for foods with less sugar be sure to double check both the ingredients label and Nutrition Facts Labels. Words on the ingredients label that end in ‘ose’ mean sugar and if sugar is listed as the first four ingredients that means it is mostly sugar. Secondly, look at the Nutrition Facts Label and check out how much added sugar and natural sugars are in the product. There is no amount of added sugar that is recommended per day, but limiting added sugar helps to maintain a healthy weight. When looking for where a product was produced or grown look at the label for the location of the farm to indicate how far the product has traveled. Knowing if a food is a super food or all natural will be hard to determine since there is not a specific definition for these buzz words, however, looking at the Nutrition Facts Label will shed light on the amount of nutrients. Since buzz words are used to attract attention to food packages, being an informed consumer will help to avoid food label pitfalls and eat healthier.