Decipher the Buzzwords on Food Labels

Getting through the grocery store can feel like making your way through a maze. Where do I find the foods I am looking for? What foods are healthy for me and my family? What the heck am I supposed to look for on the label? While food labels are valuable for helping make informed choices, they can also be confusing.

Many labels and food marketing terms are closely regulated by the government and require a rigorous certification process. Other terms, however, are not regulated andsubject to many interpretations. We chatted with registered dietitian and Maryland soybean farmer Jennie Schmidt to find out more about how to decipher food labeling.

How do you navigate labels found at the grocery store, farmers market or other places you are buying food?

Jennie Schmidt: “It’s important to pay attention to nutrition facts instead of marketing information because a lot of that information doesn’t mean anything. You should think about your own personal health concerns and take an individualized approach to buying food that fits within those concerns. Also, remember that eating healthy means moderation in the selection of the types of food you eat – it’s all about balance. It’s important to not eliminate the variety and choice but to think about moderation in everything.

“When you are at a farmer’s market, be sure to talk to the farmers and ask them questions. If you are looking for something local, be sure to ask because the produce may or may not have come from their farm depending on the regulations in the area.”

What does a perfect label look like to you?

Schmidt: “Way less information! I would only include the nutrition facts and ingredients and remove everything else.

“I would also make it so it connects the consumer to the farmer that produced the food if possible. For example, for the company that manufactures the tomatoes we grow, every time they change the label they feature a new family photo of one of the growers. This shows that the food is grown by people and that industrialization doesn’t make a food bad.”

What are your thoughts on GMO labeling?

Schmidt: “It’s very confusing why people are so concerned with wanting to know what foods are GMO because often they are not well-informed of what it actually means. It also just adds another thing to the already-crowded food label. From a farming perspective, IF we label GMOs then we should also label all plant-breeding processes.”

A law was passed by Congress last year that will require  food companies to disclose which products have genetically modified ingredients and they will have a range of options of how they will make that disclosure. This includes text on a food product label, a QR code, or directing consumers to a phone number or website with more information. 

What about all the buzzwords and marketing terms that are being discussed in the media and on labels? How do you decipher what is true or not?

 Schmidt: “It can be overwhelming to keep up with information and make the best choices for your family, which is why going back to the basics and having balance is key. If you have a particular health concern, read the nutrition facts label and try not to pick over every single thing in the food system; nothing will be perfect. Use common sense when you are at the grocery store and remember that all foods can fit into a healthy diet. It’s more about how much and how often you are eating certain foods rather than the food itself. “

We’ve broken down some of the buzzwords you’ll find on labels and in food marketing:

Best-Food-Facts-Non-GMO-Project-LabelNon-GMO on the label means that the food does not contain any ingredients that have been genetically modified. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as “organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another and/or altered by switching off a particular gene. The American Medical Association (AMA), World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and numerous other scientific and medical organizations have all made statements indicating that no clear impacts on human health have been reported or confirmed in professional journals. Bottom line: GMOs are safe.

What Does a GMO Look Like?
Are GMO Foods Less Nutritious?
GMOs: What to Know
How are GMOs created?

Best-Food-Facts-USDA-Organic-LabelOnly the 100 percent organic label guarantees the USDA’s definition of organic. This means meat, eggs and dairy products are raised without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones; produce is grown with fertilizers free of synthetic or sewage components; and no genetically modified organisms are part of the product. Organic identifies the way the food was grown, which is important to some shoppers, but it  doesn’t necessarily imply that a food is more nutritious.

There is no legal or government-regulated definition of natural. Just because a product is labeled natural doesn’t always mean it is a healthy choice.

Clean Eating
There is no definition of what it means to “eat clean” and different people may view different foods as “clean” and “not clean.” Many health professionals will agree that classifying specific foods as good or bad is overly simplistic and may foster unhealthy eating habits. Without a central definition of what foods are “clean,” it’s best to stick to eating a balanced diet (heavy on the fruits and veggies!).

Food processing is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. This includes something as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve it or as complex as formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients.

A gluten-free diet is one that avoids the protein gluten found in wheat, barley and rye. For people with celiac disease, gluten allergies and sensitivities, a gluten-free diet is essential. But for most people, avoiding gluten is unnecessary and may cause deficiencies in certain nutrients.

There is no legal or scientific definition of what a “superfood” is, but many health professionals consider foods that are very high in nutrients – beyond carbohydrates, fats and proteins – to be superfoods.

Next time you are at the grocery store, don’t be overwhelmed by food jargon. Become informed about food marketing and labeling terms; it will not only help you make healthier choices, but will also help you feel more confident in the food choices you make.

Originally published Aug. 10, 2016.