Five Keys to Reading and Understanding Food Labels - Our Daily Green

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Five Keys to Reading and Understanding Food Labels

One of the most confusing things a consumer has to do is read labels in the grocery store. With loosely or completely unregulated terms allowed on packaging, the frustration behind understanding the meaning of each term and how it's used can aggravate even the most conscientious shopper. Today, Our Daily Green wants to explain five terms that may sound good on a label but mean virtually nothing in terms of safety or healthy eating.

*Hormone Free

The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in raising poultry or hogs. Any pork or poultry that advertises itself as hormone free is merely complying with regulations in place already and must state as much. To draw an analogy, it would be like a restaurant saying their employees washed their hands before serving food. It's a given that poultry and pork are not raised with hormones. 
Where that gets confusing is regarding beef. The USDA does allow for hormones in the production of beef, therefore a label on beef that says "no hormones administered" is of value for the consumer. It indicates that they were fed a hormone-free diet. 

*Free-Range 

The USDA standard for free-range is actually rather contrived. The only regulation is that the birds have "access to the outside". In large scale, factory sorts of operations, they may be kept in the coop for the first five weeks of their lives. Many times the only access to outside is a small opening, not necessarily an open pasture or field. Since most poultry is slaughtered at seven weeks, the feeding habits are already established and the birds most likely have never set foot outdoors. The only way to ensure the poultry you purchase is truly allowed to roam outdoors, eating bugs and getting fresh air and sunshine is to actually know the farmer.

*Lean 

There is no regulation regarding the term lean. In other words, beef that has 30% fat can still call itself lean. The label may say something like 70% lean. Looking at percentages is vital to knowing how much fat is actually in the beef. Lean is simply the amount of edible muscle in the beef and merely represents the ratio of fat to beef. 

*Natural 

All Natural LabelThere are no standards for the word natural when it comes to food. Natural pretty much means whatever the company wants it to mean. In terms of meat, it means nothing was added to the meat after the slaughter to enhance the color or taste, although it says nothing about the conditions under which the meat was raised or the food it was fed, which could be far from natural. Even that term has been twisted, as chicken is often injected with a "natural" saltwater to plump up the color, taste and appearance. 
There are even more loopholes regarding the natural label for non-meat food. In fact, marketers have been trying to convince consumers that high fructose corn syrup is natural since it is derived from corn. Even more ironic, a popular lemon-lime flavored soda once billed itself as "All Natural". To simplify all this for the consumer? The word natural is meaningless on food labels. 

*Read the entire description

Juice drinks, cocktails, punches, or ades are not 100% juice. In fact, probably very little of the product actually came from the fruit. It simply means that part of the beverage is juice, sometimes as little as 5%. Usually the rest is water and sugar. 
Cheese food, cheese product, or cheese spread is not cheese. Cheese has federal guidelines for milk fat and moisture. If it's called a food, product, or spread, then it has not met those guidelines. Usually the difference is made up with oil or water to dilute the actual amount of cheese in the product. 


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