When it comes to food items, countless fancy words litter the boxes, cans & containers on our grocery store shelves with “healthy” claims describing what it is we are about to purchase; more profoundly enticing consumers to buy certain products. For the average Jane attempting to buy a healthy dinner for her family, this task can be very daunting and many of these products are extremely misleading.
I think that to be able to choose foods that are good for us as well as not fall victim to marketing schemes, we need to be educated on two things.
#1 – Read labels! I am not just talking about calories and fat grams. I am talking about the list of ingredients. If the ingredient area on the box is as long as your 4 year olds Christmas list, then forget it! The ingredients should be a concise list of things that you can recognize and pronounce. Items such as corn protein hydrolyzed, sodium caseinate, corn malodextrin, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil are not things that you want to ingest.
Here is an example – take a cereal bar that your child may have for snack or as he/she rushes out the door in the morning to catch the bus. As you peruse the grocery isle in search of a healthy option, perched on the shelf is a colorful box that catches your eye because the phrase “made with whole grains” is displayed across the front. While it may be true that this item is made WITH whole grains, the first 5 ingredients are sugar based and the “whole grains” are not listed until about the 12th ingredient. These bars are also loaded with high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and dyes, and TBHQ (a preservative; butane based, which happens to be the main chemical used in lighter fluid).
**It is important to realize that the first 5 ingredients on any list make up 98% of that food item.**
#2 – Define words on the labels! In this day and age of trying to purchase healthier items for our families, we need to realize what exactly words such as organic, natural, free range, no chemicals, etc. really mean. Despite the fact that several of these labels do have meaning, many of the definitions attached to our foods are not regulated by the FDA or USDA at all.
Here are a few of the most commonly used terms in our grocery stores:
Organic – this is the most common and honest term today. Enforced by the USDA, “100% organic” foods can only contain organic ingredients. If we are talking about animals, this also means the feed that animal consumed when it was alive was also organic. Foods labeled “organic” must be 95% organic, and “made with organic ingredients” means at least 70% of that food item is organic.
No hormones or antibiotics – Hormones are one thing. Antibiotics are another. It has got to be a healthier option if your egg carton says “no hormones,” right? Um well, not so much. By law, no hormones are allowed in chicken production (this is just another marketing scheme). However, antibiotics ARE allowed in the conventional production of animals; without them we would be eating diseased meat due to the way the animals are raised.
Free range – The picture in your head depicts a fluffy white chicken pecking at the rolling grass-covered hills of a pasture on a mild sunny day. Um….WRONG! Free range is not a regulated term and when it comes to what Americans are eating, most likely means nothing. Chickens possibly have “access” to the outside; nevertheless this may be 5 feet of space for thousands of birds. Furthermore, the USDA only regulates this term for poultry; for other animals there is no standardization.
Natural – While this term means minimally processed with no artificial colors/flavors (all good things) it is not regulated by the FDA and is therefore basically meaningless. Minimally processed in itself is defined by the USDA as “the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” Does that mean it is processed to the point right before the food is modified completely? If you wanted to fundamentally alter what you are eating, wouldn’t you just choose something else to eat altogether??!
There are numerous additional terms that manufacturers use as marketing tricks: whole grains, heart healthy, doctor-approved, reduced-fat, etc. I could go on and on……but my point is for us to try to not fall victim to these traps. Visit your farmers markets and purchase local foods as much as possible!