dietitian feeds her kids

How to read a food label

By Janette Skaar, clinical dietitian at CHOC Children’s

Trying to eat healthier may be a goal you’ve set for your family this year. Even with the best intentions, it may seem confusing with all the choices available in the aisles of your favorite grocery store. Shoppers today have more options than ever before. Sorting through food labels and checking prices may seem like a daunting task. Understanding food labels is key to making the best choices for you and your family.

Natural: The USDA allows the term “natural” to be used on meat and poultry that contains no artificial ingredients or added color. It must also be minimally processed. It does not address food production methods, such as use of growth hormones or pesticides, or potential health or nutrition benefits. The FDA has not provided any formal definition or regulation of the term “natural” on food or beverage labeling.

Processed or unprocessed: These terms may be easily misunderstood. We generally think of anything “processed” as being unhealthy, with lots of additives, like boxed mac and cheese or potato chips. “Unprocessed” foods may be healthier, since they are not in a package, frozen or canned.

The USDA defines processed as a food that has had a change in character. Roasted nuts, pre- washed spinach, and whole wheat bread are also processed, as well as anything we cut, cook or bake. Pasteurized milk is processed with heat to 161 degrees for 20 seconds to kill listeria, salmonella and E. coli, which reduces the risk of serious illness from these bacteria.  Some foods are made more nutrient dense, for example when milk and juices are fortified with calcium and Vitamin D.

This means not all processed food is unhealthy. However, we should aim to do more food prep at home, when possible, and select minimally processed foods, such as cut vegetables or frozen fruit, rather than heavily processed foods like pizza and microwave dinners. Eating too many heavily processed foods adds hidden sugar and sodium to our diets that may increase the risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Whole foods: There is no regulated definition of this term, but it generally refers to foods that are in their simplest form, that are not processed and do not have added ingredients.

100% whole grain: There is a difference between the phrases “100% whole grain” and “made with whole grains.” Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel and include whole wheat flour, bulgur or cracked wheat, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, and brown rice. Refined grains refer to grains that have been processed to remove the gran and germ. A food may have a very small percentage of whole grains in the ingredients and still carry the label “made with whole grains.” The Whole Grains Council developed the 100% Whole Grain Stamp and the Basic Stamp to help shoppers identify which foods are good sources of whole grains, and not just white bread disguised as whole grains. Check the list of ingredients. Since manufacturers must list the ingredients in descending order, the first ingredient should start with the word whole, such as whole wheat flour or whole grain rye flour.

Local: Buying locally grown and in-season fruits and vegetables means eating foods that taste fresher, have retained more of their nutrients, and cost less.

The terms local and locally grown refer to the distance between farm and market and may mean less than 100 miles, or even 450 miles, if you are a large grocery store chain. Buying local is becoming more important to shoppers concerned about their carbon footprint and their desire to lessen the impact of food production and transportation on the environment, while supporting local farmers and communities. Farmer’s markets offer the opportunity to talk to local growers and ask questions about their farming methods. Some use a mixture of organic and conventional methods.

Organic: This term has the most specific and legal meaning.  The term organic means crops are grown with fewer pesticides, no synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms and farm animals are raised without the use of routine antibiotics and are given organic feed

There are three tiers to the USDA labeling standards. To display the USDA’s organic seal of approval, the

product must meet the top two requirements:

  • “100% organic” which means it contains 100% organic ingredients
  • “Organic” indicating it contains at least 95% organic ingredients
  • “Made with organic (ingredient)” indicates it contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients

The USDA organic seal is a simple way to know if you are purchasing a primarily organic food product.

Conventionally grown: You won’t find this term on your fruits and vegetables, but it refers to the growing and production of foods with traditional farming practices, which may include chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to enhance growth. Livestock may be given antibiotics and hormones to improve their growth and prevent disease.

Organic vs Conventional? There is research support for organic foods having lower pesticide levels, as well as organically raised animals less likely to be contaminated with drug resistant bacteria. The verdict on long term health outcomes of eating organic vs conventional foods is still out.

If the price of organic produce is a concern, families can use shopper’s guides provided by Consumer Reports or the Environmental Working Group to help them choose conventional foods with lower pesticide residue. These are commonly referred to as the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen:

Dirty Dozen: Strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes

Clean Fifteen: Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, sweet peas (frozen), onions, papayas, eggplant, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushroom, honeydew melon

Whether choosing organic or conventionally grown foods, increasing your intake of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is recommended. Focus on eating a variety of foods, including those with rich colors.

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