A picture of a snarky sign recently made the rounds on social media. The sign, purportedly in front of a restaurant in New York City read, “Lead, uranium, and cocaine are also gluten free. Watch out for health buzzwords.” Indeed. Take a walk through any grocery store or scan the shelves of any food purveyor and one need not “watch out” at all. We are inundated with food labels containing various eye-catching catch-phrases; all designed to entice us to pick up the given product and chomp away at it, guilt free.
The labels have become so numerous that one should ask if they have any meaning at all. As obesity and diabetes continue to plague the United States, healthy eating has become more popular, even trendy. Movements abound: Paleo, raw food, and gluten free are all trends that are catching — or have caught — on. First lady Michelle Obama, while not endorsing any particular movement, has made healthy eating a key public issue during her time living in the White House.
Food and nutritional awareness have led to an increased sensitivity to how our food is actually produced. As that has happened people have become increasingly aware that mass produced food, especially meat products, are often grown under conditions that make a typical person cringe. The lines have now blurred. And those blurred lines have created an opportunity for marketers to cash in. Food labels with healthy sounding proclamations now abound. So too does confusion.
Favorable growing or living conditions do not necessarily mean that the food we eat is any better for us. Similarly, that the food may actually be healthy does not mean that it was treated humanely as it was raised. To make matters worse, the labels that are supposed to convey this information often times mean nothing at all.
Here is a look at the top five meaningless food labels, what they say, what they don’t mean, and what consumers should ask themselves when they see them.
It is only fair to start here, with that funny sign in New York. It is hard to say exactly where the gluten free craze started. It likely has to do with increasing awareness of celiac disease. That is the name given to a pesky autoimmune disease that damages the villi of the small intestine, thereby interfering with the absorption of nutrients from food. It is estimated that one in 133 Americans has the disease, about 1 percent of the population. Furthermore, celiac disease goes undiagnosed in 83 percent of sufferers. The only treatment for the disease is a gluten-free diet.
It is a serious disease with a laundry list of symptoms. Many of those symptoms, though, like general weakness or fatigue, may have people self diagnosing. A recent study by the Mayo Clinic looked into whether the increased interest in gluten free eating had to do with an increase in instances of celiac disease or whether it was just a diet fad. The answer from the Mayo Clinic: Both. There has been a slight rise in the disease, the study found. It also discovered that there are about 1.6 million people in the United States eating a gluten free diet without ever having been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
So why are food companies wasting ink to plaster “gluten free” all over their labels? Because many have come to equate those two little words with one, much more meaningful, word, “healthy.”
If one has been diagnosed with celiac or gluten sensitivity, then a label proclaiming that a food product is gluten-free is certainly helpful. Those who truly suffer from the disease, though, are likely to have a general idea of what is and is not safe to eat. If you don’t have celiac disease, well, it doesn’t matter whether the food is gluten free or not. Sure, you may not want to eat gluten, and that is your right. But most potato chips were gluten free 10 years ago (some were, and are, not). They weren’t good for you back then and they still aren’t, even if the label proudly says “gluten free.”
This one is simple. Pick up a package of chicken, hold it in your hands, look at it. Did you, for one second, suspect that it was not natural; that, perhaps, it was a synthetic chicken leg? Likely not.
For meat products, the USDA allows the word “natural” to appear on products that have been minimally processed. If the word is used, the label must further explain why. For instance, it might carry the disclaimer “No added coloring.”
As for other food products. The FDA doesn’t offer much guidance. This is what it says:
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
So consumers are pretty much on their own as to figuring what it means. The safe bet is that it means little or nothing. “Natural” food? Good, but don’t pay extra for it and don’t believe you are doing yourself any favors.
No Hormones / Hormone Free
This label occurs most often on packages of chicken products. Companies love to tell consumers that their chickens have been raised without hormones. But what are they really telling you?
Not a thing. The USDA does not allow hormones to be administered to any poultry. The same goes for pork products. In fact, the USDA finally decided that labeling chicken “hormone free” was so misleading that the fact that hormones are outlawed must also be placed on the package. Next time you see a package of chicken look closely. If it is labeled “no hormones,” somewhere on the package, in much smaller print it will say something like, “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
If your chicken package does not say “hormone free,” rest assured that it is. Don’t be fooled into buying chicken from someone who feels they need to tell you.
Free Range / Cage Free
Again, this label typically has to do with chickens. It is to be left up to the reader as to whether a free range chicken is actually healthier. Many are concerned that the ubiquitous bird is treated more poorly than any of the other farm raised animals we love to eat. Labels that want you to know that the chicken you are about to consume was raised cage free may help to assuage some guilt.
If the two terms conjure up visions of happy chickens prancing around a barnyard, a little more research may be in order.
The USDA has taken steps to define “free range” for poultry products. Essentially all it means is that the chicken is kept in a large barn and has access to the outdoors. It doesn’t mean that they go outdoors, just that the barn door is left open, so to speak. Free range means virtually nothing if you see it on an egg carton.
Cage free chickens have a similar life to their free range cousins. In the egg business, it means the chickens live free inside a barn but they do not have access to the outside.
Feel less guilty? Probably not. Don’t pay extra when you see these labels.
Perhaps the buzziest of the buzzwords. “Organic” can be bandied about by consumers just as much as it can be used to mislead them. Consumers can often be heard in grocery store aisles using the word as a catch-all for a healthy alternative. That’s not the case. Organic actually does mean something as far as the USDA is concerned. The guidelines for what can be a labeled a certified organic produce are stringent. So stringent, in fact, that they are too numerous and lengthy to be mentioned here.
If the product has the label, especially the green “USDA Organic” seal, rest assured that every ingredient in that product has met the USDA’s guidelines. If you are concerned about eating food that is not organic, then scanning the aisles for the green seal can be a useful exercise.
But if you think you are doing yourself a favor by eating an organic toaster pastry (yes, they exist) think again.