Understanding Food Labels at the Supermarket
Many terms that we know the meaning of from a dictionary, do not have the dictionary definition or even the common language meaning we might be familiar with when they appear on a food label. The words used in advertising can actually be bought and patented to mean whatever they need to mean. Manufacturers could legally call bleached or lye-soaked black beans “purified beans” or “white beans” in the product name.
The Nutrition Facts Panel
The Nutrition Facts product label was developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to alert consumers to nutrients and calories in foods and beverages. It must list the amount of calories, fats, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sodium, fiber, sugars, protein, vitamins, and minerals per serving, as well as the serving size, and the number of servings per container. The FDA, USDA, Health and Human Services (HHS), and other governmental agencies say they update the Nutrition Facts panel to regulate health claims based on scientific research and consensus panels. The following phrases explain what is in a food item:
Calories and Calories From Fat. This wording indicates the number of calories in a serving, and how many of the calories come from fat. This information is for one serving as defined on the label, regardless of how many items are in the package.
Ingredients. Items in foods are listed on the labels in top down order of their amounts present. In the list, they show up by percentage of the whole with the greatest amount at the top of the list. Fruit drinks, for instance, start with filtered water, sugar, apple (one of the cheapest fruits so it often comprises the majority of many fruit drinks, generally in concentrate form). A good rule to follow is that the fewer the ingredients, the better.
Minerals and Vitamins. Minerals and vitamins are listed by their percentage of daily value (%DV) only and are usually synthetic. Note the dietary amounts of important vitamins like D, A, C, calcium, and magnesium. Make a conscious effort to get natural sunshine for vitamin D, carrots and green vegetables (organic and raw are best) for vitamin A, peppers for vitamin C, and a multi-mineral supplement for calcium and magnesium.
Nutrients by Weight and %DV. This shows how much of each nutrient is in one serving by its weight in grams and by %DV. The %DV is similar to the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of a nutrient, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Sugars and protein aren’t nutrients and aren’t listed by %DV. Fats are listed as Total Fat and new labeling guidelines now also require that it be separated into saturated fat and trans fat. Of the two, trans fat is the one to be most avoided.
Serving Size. Reading this information clarifies that the size of a portion may not coincide with consumers’ ideas. Pastries may be packaged separately four to a box. The label may indicate that one serving is 400 calories – but that’s for only one.
Meat and Poultry Labeling
Other than for infant formula or baby food, there’s no uniform standard for food dating in America. It is not required by the USDA and state regulations vary. For labels on meat and poultry, wording is provided, such as fresh, organically raised, or raised without hormones, as well as a Sell By date, Best if sold by date, and Best if used by date.
Product date labels refer only to the quality of food, and consumers must determine for themselves when food may have become unsafe. According to the USDA, some common date labels that manufacturers use are defined this way:
The Sell By date indicates how long the store should display the product for sale. Manufacturers generally recommend a product not be sold after its Sell By date, but it is more about flavor than a safety date. Still, if the flavor is thought to degrade by that date, it’s a good assumption the product should no longer be considered fresh after that.
The Best If Used By (or before) date is the last date recommended for product use at peak quality. This is the last day for product use for the best flavor, but is not a purchase or safety date.
Labels may provide guidelines for handling raw meat and poultry, and unless a product is labeled fully cooked, it should be handled and prepared as if raw. Some products that appear pre-cooked, are raw and not ready to eat.
For those who hate to waste food and can accept bland taste, researchers indicate meats can often be soaked in hydrogen peroxide, either as an indicator of or a treatment for bacterial contamination. Profuse foaming indicates considerable bacteria. But since peroxide kills bacteria, if several treatments or soaks no longer induce foaming (as bacteria is concentrated on the exposed exterior) the item may then be safe to eat, although not necessarily flavorable. This is not a recommended practice.
Read and Decipher Supermarket Food Labels
How to decipher the label information on supermarket foods and groceries has become a challenge. The following list of terms contains advertising adjectives used on labels to describe the processing of canned and packaged products so they will appear desirable. This is intended to help them sell better than if the uncolorful truth were printed. Here’s what they really mean:
Fortified, Enriched, Added, Extra, and Plus
These words are generally applied to breads, cookies, crackers, and packaged substances, and mean that during their processing, nutrients (minerals, fiber, etc.), have been removed and vitamins, usually synthetic, have been added. The best quality foods have labels stating 100% of the product you expect to be buying is in it, such as 100% whole-wheat bread, crackers, cookies, and high-fiber, low-sugar regarding cereal. Food labels must list the amounts of macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrate, including fiber) and the vitamin and mineral content of the product.
According to Dr. William Campbell Douglass II in his September 2009 health newsletter Daily Dose , “Fortification is a deceitful practice that tricks people into thinking it’s safe to eat lousy food — not to mention the fact that these foods are usually fortified with only small amounts of shoddy low-quality nutrients, not nearly enough to help someone get what they truly need.”
Made with Wheat, Rye, or Multigrain
Products labeled this way may have very little real whole grain. If you’re looking for a 100% whole-grain product, look for “whole” before “grain”, and “100%”, to ensure you’re getting the healthy food you want.
This simply means that the substance came from a natural source, but after it’s processed, there are no guarantees it will resemble anything natural unless labeled “100% All Natural” and “No Preservatives.” Unlike “organic,” a word which is legally regulated, “natural”, when found in a local supermarket, can mean just about anything.
Organically Grown, Pesticide-free, or No Artificial Ingredients
The Agricultural Marketing Service at USDA is responsible for how the term “organic” is used. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that should receive no antibiotics or growth hormones. To be labeled organic, a Government-approved certifier must inspect farms where the food is grown to ensure all operations comply with USDA organic standards. Trust only labels that say “Certified Organically Grown” or “100% Organic.”
Under standards adopted by the U.S. Agriculture Dept. (USDA) in 2000 and fully effective in 2002, synthetic or sewer-sludge fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and medicated feed may not be used in the raising of organic foods or animal products; nor can irradiation, biotechnology (genetic modification), chemicals or petrochemicals be used in food processing, . Food made up of ingredients that are at least 95% organic by weight may carry the “USDA Organic” label; but products using the “100% Organic” label must contain nothing but organic ingredients. [See “organic food.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2009)].
The Organic Crop Improvement Association, a member-owned, nonprofit organization that provides research, education, and certification services to organic growers, processors, and handlers around the world, is the Midwest’s leading certification agency for organic produce. Their stipulations are that anything to be labeled “organic produce” must be grown on fields that have not been sprayed with insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides, .
This term generally means there’s little or no real fruit in it unless it is labeled “100% Fruit Juice.”
Sugar-free or Fat-free
This label terminology does not indicate a product is low-calorie or will help with weight loss. The manufacturing process may have replaced sugar with unhealthy ingredients that don’t even taste very good. And it can be labeled this way and still have no fewer calories than the original.
In January of 2006, the FDA set out new requirements for food manufacturers to clearly indicate on product labels the presence of any possible consumer allergens in a product. Even though food processors are supposed to clean machines thoroughly before beginning a new run with different product, manufacturers must state if a product might contain proteins from any of eight major allergenic foods, assuming that traces from a previous substance processed on the same machine might ‘contaminate’ the product enough to