And that means what?

Posted on June 4, 2011


Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

We hear a lot these days about how consumers need to be better informed when it comes to the food we eat.  A chorus of voices is shouting at us to, “Check the ingredients!  Read the labels!”  This can sometimes be easier said than done.  Some of the information provided on the label can be difficult to interpret even when presented clearly.  When you remember that everything about a product’s packaging is chosen by that company to convince us that we need their product, it becomes easier to understand why this information is unclear.  (And occasionally downright misleading!)

Let’s start with the front of the package.  This is the billboard for our food.  The information that appears here is designed to catch and hold our attention so we will choose product A over product B.  It will typically alert us to the name (or flavor) of the item, the brand, and a claim about the product’s healthfulness, nutrition, or taste.  For example: The label may indicate that the item is natural, green, organic, sugar free, low sodium, high fiber, low fat, certified vegan,  or part of the Smart Choices program.  Some of these statements tell us more about the product than others.

When I hear the word “natural” I imagine a minimally processed product made with easily identifiable ingredients and few, if any, additives.  In reality the term is unregulated.  Anyone can use it, regardless of what the product contains or how it is manufactured.  (Except for meat and poultry, to be labeled natural these products can not contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients, and can be only “minimally processed”. )  “Green” is also unregulated.  It’s a buzzword associated with the current pro-environment trend in marketing.  I don’t mean to say that the product isn’t really natural or green, just that these terms themselves tell you very little about what it is you are buying.

Organic is a regulated term.  In order to receive the USDA Organic seal a product must contain at least 95% certified organic ingredients.  The 100% organic label requires that all ingredients be certified, and to use the phrase “Made with organic ingredients” 70% must be certified organic.  In order to become certified organic producers must meet strict standards including the exclusion of synthetic pesticide use, and outdoor access for livestock.  Certified Vegan is also a strictly applied term.  A product with this label cannot contain animal ingredients or byproducts, cannot use those items in the manufacturing process,  and cannot be tested on animals.

High, free, low, and less.  These terms are also regulated, whether they are being used to describe fiber, sugar, fat, or calories, the meanings are pretty much the same.   A product is high in something if it contains 20% or more of the recommended daily value per serving.  If a food is “free” of an ingredient then it may not contain that ingredient, except possibly in trace amounts, or any product that does.  So a sugar free cookie cannot contain sugar, but it also cannot contain jam which contains sugar.  It can however contain carbohydrates, which do raise blood sugar levels when consumed.  A salt free product cannot have salt added, but may still contain other types of sodium.  “Low” means the amount of a substance falls below a specific number for a specific serving size.  For sodium, low is defined as 140mg or less per 30g (or larger) serving.  Low is generally consistent across products so if you look up the basic definition of the term you can apply it to any item making the claim.  The most complicated of the three terms is “less”.

Let’s use sodium as an example again.  The FDA says a food that is less, lower or reduced in sodium “contains at least 25 percent less sodium per reference amount customarily consumed than an appropriate reference food.”  That’s fine and dandy, but you need to know what the “reference food” is to make sense of the claim.  Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup contains 710mg of sodium per ½ cup serving.  There are 2 ½ servings in one can.  That’s 1775mg of sodium in one can of soup.  Their Healthy Request version still contains 470mg per serving, or 1175mg per can.  If, like me, you eat a whole can of soup in one sitting, the reduced sodium soup is still 50% of your daily recommended value of sodium!

Many of the claims made on labels, like “reduced” are extremely relative.  Some are completely unregulated.  Others only make sense if you know what they are being used in reference to- the Smart Choices program is one example.  The program is internally consistent, but in order to understand why one product qualifies and another doesn’t you need to go to their website and check out their specific standards.

These are only a few of the terms and labels used to describe and advertise the foods we eat.  Without knowing the background of each and every one it can be hard to know exactly what we’re getting when we sit down to dinner.  There is an easier way.  Next time we’re going to ignore the front of the package entirely and focus on the details: How to read nutrition information and ingredients.

Find out more about labeling regulation on the FDA’s  website:

This article was first written for the GreenTree Co-op Newsletter.

Posted in: Labels