By Janette Skaar, clinical dietitian at CHOC Children’s
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
Natural: The USDA allows the term “natural” to be used
and poultry that contains no artificial ingredients
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
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.
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
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.
Buying locally grown and in-season
fruits and vegetables means eating
foods that taste fresher, have
retained more of their nutrients,
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
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
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,
product must meet the top two requirements:
- “100% organic” which means it contains 100% organic
- “Organic” indicating it contains
at least 95% organic
- “Made with organic
(ingredient)” indicates it contains
at least 70% organically
The USDA organic
seal is a simple way to know if you are purchasing
a primarily organic food
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
may be given antibiotics and hormones to improve their growth and
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
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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