Wonderful guest post for you today on food labels like natural, local, certified…what does it all really mean?
There’s one important thing to remember when you’re buying food: the people that made it really, really want you to buy it. Why is this important? It’s simple: food labels are neither intuitive nor do they tell the whole truth. If you want to go into your meal planning with confidence, here are some things to keep in mind.
First off, you should know exactly what labels you just can’t trust. The first is “natural.” On the surface, this seems like a really good quality for food to have, but the actual definition of the label doesn’t quite live up to what you might think. The FDA only says that “food [that] does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances” is natural, which is honestly not much of a restriction. Instead, look at the ingredients list on the label yourself to evaluate what’s in the product.
Even worse than “natural” is the label “local.” The reason this label is so bad is that there is no official entity that evaluates claims for food to be local. In other words, that product you’re buying doesn’t have to have been grown within 100 miles of where you’re buying it to be considered local (which is the definition most people think “local” should mean). You’d be farther ahead to just go to the closest farmer’s market where you can actually talk to the person who grew your food.
The good news is that those two are the most common offenders. There are also many labels out there that are both accurate and helpful. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the label “certified,” which you see on meat. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, certified products have been examined and judged based upon a set of “quality characteristics” that include things like the grade of the meat. Even though you might not know exactly what all of that means, you can be sure that certified meat is better than meat that hasn’t been certified.
Two other helpful labels are ones that have made major strides in the past few years: “organic” and “fair trade.” Organic food is basically what you expect: “produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” Any farm or processing facility the product was involved with also has to have been examined by a government-approved group. Also, in order to help give you an idea of exactly how organic something is, there are different labels based on what percentage of the ingredients are organic. In short: 100% = “100% organic,” 95% = “organic,” 70% or more = “made with organic ingredients” and 70% or less = “contains organic ingredients.”
Another label you’ve probably been hearing about is “fair trade,” which is awarded by the company FLO-CERT. Fair trade means that everyone involved in getting the product from the field to you was given the share they deserve of the money, thereby making sure that big corporations don’t cut out the small farmers of poverty-stricken nations.
Some food labels are completely deceitful. However, if you go into the store armed with knowledge, you can make those labels work for you, making sure that you walk out with a healthier haul in your cart.
James Kim is a writer for foodonthetable.com. Food on the Table is a company that provides online budget meal planning services. Their goal is to help families eat better and save money.
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