From Our NYT Files: The Terms on a Food Label to Ignore, and the Ones to Watch For

From Our NYT Files: The Terms on a Food Label to Ignore, and the Ones to Watch For

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By Lizz Schumer
The New York Times

From Our NYT Files: The Terms on a Food Label to Ignore, and the Ones to Watch For


Food labels are meant to be easy to read, but some terms on those labels are marketing lingo or mean something different than you may think. Here’s what to pay attention to and what to ignore entirely. If your head starts spinning when trying to make healthy and budget-friendly food choices, you’re not alone. Take a look around your local grocery store and you’ll find a slew of confusing terms. Organic. Non-G.M.O. Low-sugar. Superfood.

What does it all mean, and how can a normal human shopper possibly make sense of any of it? We asked registered dietitians, food marketers and members of the New York City Agriculture Collective for help decoding the labels you see in the grocery store. Let’s break down how to decode the label and get past the marketing into the actual benefits of what we’re buying.

The Food Label Terms to Ignore
Liz Vaknin of the food marketing company Our Name Is Farm said the way food is labeled — you guessed it — aims to get it off the shelf and into our shopping carts.

“The more value you ascribe to a term, the more you identify with it, the more you’re willing to pay for it,” she explained. “Some are useful, some are misleading, and a lot of them are not regulated enough to mean anything.” Take “natural,” for example, she said. The term has been thrown around so much, it barely means anything at all.

“Superfood,” according to Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, is almost equally meaningless. “As I like to say, all plant-based foods are ‘superfoods’ in the sense that they offer fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients,” he said. “A peach is just as ‘super’ as a berry that grows in the Himalayas.”

That said, some terms do matter — sort of.

Two Things You Should Definitely Pay Attention To
The federal Food and Drug Administration requires that labels of nutrition facts include added sugars, one important element to consider. Mr. Bellatti suggested capping your added sugar consumption at no more than 24 grams, per day. “A healthful food is low in added sugar, low in added sodium and offers a nice amount of fiber,” he explained. Debi Zvi, a clinical nutritionist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and a NYC Agricultural Collective member, recommends reading the serving size carefully, too. Even supposed “single-serving” packages can contain multiples. “If you only have a few seconds to make your food choice, I would recommend looking for foods with less than 20 percent daily value of sodium and saturated fat, and less than 10 grams of added sugar,” she suggested.

G.M.O. vs. Non-G.M.O.
It’s important to note that not all G.M.O.s, or genetically modified organisms, are necessarily bad. The F.D.A. actually prefers to use “genetically engineered,” calling the term G.M.O. “overly broad and inaccurate.” “People are scared of the term because they don’t really know what it means,” Ms. Vaknin said. “Pretty much everything has been somewhat genetically modified.” Take carrots, for example. While they naturally occur in a rainbow of colors, the proliferation of the common orange variety first rose to prominence in the 15th and 16th centuries, and its popularity stuck. We owe that to selective breeding — or genetic modification.

While most scientists agree that G.M.O. foods are safe, genetic modification can run the gamut from selecting spinach for frost resistance to adding nutrients to foods that don’t produce those compounds in nature. And that doesn’t come without controversy, and consumer groups have demanded foods with G.M.O. ingredients be labeled.
A lot of the opposition to non-G.M.O. foods is purely psychological. However, if the idea of Frankenfood freaks you out, stick to heirloom vegetables and heritage meat. Many of those will taste better too, although you often pay more for the privilege.

What ‘Organic’ Really Means, and When It Matters
A lot of us misunderstand what the term “organic” actually means. When farming organically, farmers use naturally occurring compounds instead of industrial pesticides to keep pests at bay. Animals raised for organic meat must not consume antibiotics or hormones. Practically, organic practices matter more in produce you consume in its entirety.

“Some [fruits and vegetables] take in a lot more of their environment than others,” Ms. Vaknin explained. She said that nonorganic bananas, “are probably fine because you’re going to be peeling them, but with strawberries, those pesticides are going to be absorbed directly into the fruit. So if you can’t afford to buy all organic, pick and choose.” (However, the idea that “organic equals less pesticides,” often a selling point, is not necessarily true. For a complete view on the issue, this article at The Washington Post clarifies.)

The organic label does provide two key benefits: education and regulation. “Food labeled U.S.D.A. organic has to meet a set of publicly available standards and in that way, we have access to much more information about it. The organic label offers a level of transparency,” Mrs. Zvi said.

Farms that receive that United States Department of Agriculture’s organic stamp also have to undergo a rigorous application and certification process, which takes about five years to complete. Many small, local farms don’t have the resources to complete the application, even if they do use organic processes.

Pay Attention to How Far Your Food Travels
The most important consideration when buying produce is the amount of time it spends away from the plant. “The second you harvest, it starts losing vitamin C and phytochemicals that are sensitive to oxygen,” explained Alina Zolotareva, a registered dietitian and marketing manager of AeroFarms.

She added that most produce comes from the West Coast, meaning that many tomatoes have spent up to two to three weeks in transit before they make it to your grocery store. “Most [vegetables] are not bred for flavor,” she explained. “They’re bred for transportability and durability. They’re bred to survive to the plate, not focused on nutrition.”

If you can’t buy organic (or if flavor matters more than anything else), go for locally grown instead. Local farmers also provide a valuable resource, in general. They can tell you how their food is grown, how long ago they harvested it and what’s in season. If you have questions, never hesitate to ask.

The Nuance Between ‘Whole’ and ‘Processed’ Foods
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that ready-to-eat (68.1 percent) and ready-to-heat (15.2 percent) products supplied the majority of calories in American food purchases. While it’s easy to demonize “processed” foods, what constitutes a “whole” food isn’t as intuitive as you might think.

“Yes, whole or minimally processed foods are best,” said Mr. Bellatti, the registered dietitian. “When it comes to plant-based foods, processing greatly reduces fiber as well as minerals like potassium and vitamins like vitamin C.” However, the U.S.D.A.’s definition of “processed food” also includes “healthy” foods like frozen vegetables, dried fruit, canned beans and whole-wheat bread, as well as problematic ones like ready-to-heat meals, candy and soda.

All of the nutritionists we consulted said it’s all about balance. “At the end of the day, eat real food,” Ms. Zolotareva advised. “It’s got to end up in your mouth, not your garbage can.” She added that some processing is fine — as long as it makes you more likely to actually consume it.

Ms. Zvi also helps her clients find food that they can enjoy. “I work with clients to expand that sweet spot of nutrient dense food they also find delicious and, practically speaking, some processed foods often end up in that sweet spot,” she said.

Most Importantly: Buy What You’ll Actually Eat
“The most important thing is to buy what you and your family is realistically going to eat. It does take some trial and error,” said Ms. Zolotareva. She recommends cooking in batches, but only if your family eats leftovers. Buying in bulk only saves money if you actually eat it.

The U.S.D.A. reports that in the United States, food waste consumes between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. That doesn’t just hurt your wallet, but the planet, too. And it’s important to note the way we look at spending on food, period. “As a country, we’re willing to spend money on a lot of things and the one thing we compromise on is food,” Ms. Vaknin said.
Life is often all about compromises and making educated decisions. If you struggle to pay rent or make ends meet, you’re probably not buying organic strawberries or obsessing over whether your kale is G.M.O. But if you’re able to spend less on your next pair of shoes and a little more on feeding yourself and your family the most healthy options, it may be worth giving your grocery budget a little boost.