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Food Labels Explained

I often hear that people are confused and overwhelmed by food labels.  They are unsure what labels mean and they assume that alot of foods are healthy if they have a particular label on them. Understanding food labels will help you understand where and how your food was produced.  Once you know what labels mean, your food shopping will be easier and take less time.

There are so many natural and synthetic chemicals we come into contact with in our everyday lives. It's almost impossible to live in the modern world and avoid exposure to toxins such as pesticides, BPA, pollution and antibiotics in food.  I'll go through each food label and explain thoroughly what they mean.  My class information at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition delved into this topic with lectures and slideshows and I'm excited to pass this onto my readers.

Let's talk about organic first because I think for most of us, buying organic is a top priority.  When food is labeled organic, it must meet specific criteria and be certified by a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) approved independent agency. Many times foods will be verified organic by the USDA and another agency.  To meet organic criteria, produce must be free from pesticides and genetically modified organisms (more on that soon), crops must be rotated and there must be positive soil building and conservation.  Livestock must have outdoor access and they must be antibiotic and hormone free.  Livestock must also be fed organic food.  Organic food must not be contaminated by non organic food and documentation of all organic food must be kept.  Sometimes at farmers markets, you will see pesticide free produce but no "certified organic" label.  This means that the farm has not applied for organic certification for whatever reason or they are waiting for certification. In supermarkets, organic produce are labeled with a sticker that begins with a 9 and has 4 numbers after it.  So, if you're in the supermarket and don't see a sign, check the sticker on the produce to make sure it is organic.  Conventional produce has four numbers on the sticker that begins with 4.

Because organic farms conserve water, rotate crops and don't use pesticides, organic farming is sustainable and much better for the environment than conventional farming.  It is best to buy organic, local produce from farmers in your area so that you can support small farm business and to encourage organic farming.  I often hear people say they cannot afford to buy organic so the good news is you don't need to buy every fruit and veggie organic.  To see the dirty dozen, clean fifteen list click here

Organic and GMO labels, they will appear separately

Non GMO, GMO free.  GMOs are genetically modified organisms: plants and animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants or animals.  Some crops, such as corn, are genetically modified to repel pests so they have a built in pesticide gene.  The crops that are highly genetically modified are corn, soybeans, canola oil, sugar beets and papaya.  What's the big deal about GMOs?  No one knows what they can do to our DNA in the long run.  Since GMOs were introduced in the 90's, there has been an increase in chronic illness, autism and ADHD and food allergies.  There is very little government oversite and companies don't feel the need to label GMO food.  Click here for 10 reasons why we need to avoid GMOs.

The natural label.  The natural label is only government regulated for meat and poultry; the natural label on your cereal box means nothing.  Natural meat and poultry has to be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or preservatives.  However natural meat is not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised or free from hormones or antibiotics.  Natural on packaged foods may make them seem healthy but there is no regulation for the label on these foods.

Antibiotic free means that an animal was not given antibiotics during their lifetime.

Cage free means that birds are not raised in cages but they are not necessarily raised outdoors where they can engage in normal animal behavior.
Pasture raised means that an animal was raised outdoors, free to roam and eat nutritious grass.  This is the most humane way to raise livestock and was the traditional farming method.  Animals raised on factory farms are fed grain and raised indoors in crowded conditions.  Animals were meant to roam free engaging with other animals.  They are social creatures with feelings and they all feel pain. Factory farms are the reason why I'm vegan.
Grass fed.  This mean that the animals were fed grass for most of their lives.  Grass is a natural food for cows, ideal for their digestion; grains are not a natural food for cows and they are given grains on factory farms.  A grass fed animal is not necessarily eating grass their whole life; some livestock eat grain right before slaughter.

Healthy label.  Healthy foods must be low in saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium.  Certain foods must also contain 10% of vitamins, calcium, protein and fiber.

Free range.This means the poultry is allowed time outdoors to engage in normal animal behavior; it does not mean the birds spent their whole life outdoors or that they are well taken care of or free from hormones and antibiotics.

Fair trade label. This means that farmers and workers in developing countries are fairly compensated for their work and that they work in safe conditions while growing and packaging their product.

BPA free lining. Bisphenol-A is a synthetic compound that is known to be toxic to humans in high levels.  It is a hormone disrupting compound that is found on receipt paper, in the lining of canned goods, in the lining of water pipes and is found in plastics.  You can find BPA free labels on cans now and some water bottles have BPA free labels as well.  These seven companies are now BPA free.  

There are so many labels out there, so many toxins to worry about and very little direction since the government and health professionals all say different things when it comes to food and health.  No one diet works for everyone but most of us want to eat healthy, whole foods whenever we can. Healthy doesn't have to be expensive; look for the foods that contain the least amount of ingredients and ingredients that you can pronounce.

What do I do with all of this information?  Review the dirty dozen, clean fifteen list above and buy organic when necessary.  Eat whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, and healthy fats such as avocados and olive oil. Eat unprocessed, organic soy and corn, buy BPA free canned goods and plastics and get in some exercise.  Also, take time for yourself so you can relax. Meditate, go for a walk, read a book, chat with a friend, enjoy life!  Understanding food labels can reduce anxiety when food shopping and may even make it fun :)

Email me with any questions you have about food labels and healthy eating.


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