Trying to eat healthy, nutritious food is already tough in our fast-paced, busy lives. Decoding claims on food labels makes it that much harder to be healthy.
There are certain words that the government protects, meaning food manufacturers can’t put them on the label unless the food meets specific criteria. However, for other healthy-sounding words? Shoppers should look more closely.
Let’s say you’re looking for foods that are grown without synthetic toxic pesticides and are packaged without artificial ingredients. You might reach for the product labeled “natural.”
“For a food manufacturer, they can decide what they think it means to be labeled ‘natural.’ They might think, ‘well I put fruit in it and fruit is natural,’ so they can go ahead and label that natural,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Consumer Reports Food Safety Expert.
Vallaeys said there are no rules around the word natural and what you’re looking for is the word “organic.” The USDA has strict rules about using that word on food labels.
“No synthetic toxic pesticides, but also no synthetic fertilizers, no sewage sludge can be applied to the fields, no crops that have been genetically engineered,” she said.
This next label is tricky: the words “cage-free” in terms of chicken products aren’t always as meaningful as you’d think.
“Most laying hens, chickens raised for laying eggs, are raised in cages so if you see ‘cage free’ on a carton of eggs, that has meaning,” Vallaeys said, “but most chickens that are raised for meat are raised in big buildings with tens of thousands of other birds.” Therefore, there were never cages involved to begin with.
It’s the same thing with the word “gluten,” which is only found in cereal grains.
“You can see it on products like rice and oats that don't naturally contain gluten but then they even allow it on products like bottled water, gluten is just not an issue when you're buying bottled water,” Vallaeys said.
Here are other labels you can count on: for antibiotic-free food, look for a USDA seal. “Certified humane” or “animal welfare approved” are words that mean inspectors are making sure the animals are treated well from birth to slaughter.
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