SMARTER THAN THE FOOD LABEL

 

Use this guide to de-mystify food packaging claims and become a savvy shopper.

 

For those of us who love healthy foods, few things feel more satisfying than buy directly from farmers who value quality products and environmental stewardship.  Here are some tips to guide your health-conscious choices.

 

Don’t let the packaging fool you.  First things first: When you see packaging with multiple nutritional claims, this does not mean the food is healthy.  In fact, just the opposite is often true.  Aggressive nutritional marketing should give you reason to pause and dig deeper because it is most often used in less nutritious food.  Many nutritional marketing terms have no regulatory oversight, such as natural, made with real, lightly sweetened, multigrain.  Meanwhile, 100 percent whole grain indicates the presence of real, whole grains but does not indicate that any of the other ingredients are good for you.  Frustratingly, even if a label is actually regulated, it still doesn’t mean the product is healthy.  Fat-free foods are often full of empty calories and light products may be made almost entirely of fillers and artificial flavoring with no nutritional value.   Gluten-free is an increasingly popular label, is also not indicative of health, unless of course you’re someone with a true gluten sensitivity or allergy.

 

Organic is worth paying for, but not all organic foods are created equal.  In spite of recent conflicting reports about the value of organics, organic foods are still worth paying for.  Food grown in healthier soil and without synthetic chemicals is more nutritious and lower in harmful toxins (learn more at motherearthliving.com/eating-organic-still-smart).  With the rise in demand for organic products, however, organic farming practices increasingly resemble large scale monoculture operations.  Many industrial organic farming operations do not apply the fundamental organic practices of crop rotation, cover cropping, building soil with compost, and maintaining biological diversity.   Instead, they follow the list of USDA organic certification prohibitions, which prevent the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes and petroleum or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.  Fruits and vegetables grown on these industrial organic farms have fewer harmful toxins than their conventional brethren, but they are not likely to have more nutrition because the soil they come from doesn’t have more nutrition.

 

Aim for whole foods and few ingredients. When buying packaged foods, ingredient lists are one of your best tools for reading between the lines of health claims,  If a package claims ‘high in fiber’ for example, but three of the top five ingredients are various forms of sugar, it’s probably not your healthiest option.  Or a food product might be labeled organic, but you see in the ingredient list that it contains mostly refined ingredients and the product is filled with binders and preservatives.  Regardless of the organic label, this is junk food.

 

Egg claims are mostly unreliable.  When it comes to eggs, many claims evoke images of chickens roaming rolling fields with red barns.  Almost none of the claims on eggs are true.  The best way to get nutritious eggs is to buy then locally from someone raising hens that graze on pastures, or raise your own hens.

 

The grass is actually greener.  Meat and dairy products from pastured animals are the healthiest option.  Meat from animals allowed to eat their natural grass-based diet has 2-4 times as much healthy omega-3 fatty acid content as meat from grain-fed animals, plus significantly fewer calories and a healthy supply of vitamins A, D, E and beta-carotene.    For the most nutritious meat, you’ll need to buy directly from farmers who can tell you that they exclusively pasture their animals and use no added hormones or antibiotics, or from a grocer whose claims you trust.

 

Get to know your food producers.  This doesn’t only mean shopping at your local farmers market.  It also means the companies from which you regularly buy cereal and chocolate bars.   Most companies have websites and social media accounts that can help provide insight into their values.  Are these companies getting recognition for good practices?  Learning about your staple food brands can take a little work on the front end, but it’s a great way to trust that your food dollars are being well-spent. 

Arielle Moinester