What is organic food versus non-GMO? What does the word ‘natural’ mean on a food product? I would wager that every person who has been to a grocery store has been confused by the labels on the sea of products on the shelves. It’s important to always read the ingredients label and to really consider what is printed on a product — from beef, to orange juice, to chips. Remember, food manufacturers are businesses. The logo, pictures on the box, recipes on the back of the package, and words like “healthy” and “natural” are all ways to try to sell their product and make a profit. We should be knowledgeable about the food we buy and what the following labels mean:
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began using an official USDA Organic seal on food that is certified organic. For a food to display the official seal, the farmers raising the crop/animal have to follow strict guidelines issued by the FDA to meet the requirements. It’s not just a matter of not using pesticides — there are other criteria that organic food products must meet. According to the USDA, organic farms and processors:
- Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
- Support animal health and welfare
- Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
- Only use approved materials
- Do not use genetically modified ingredients
- Receive annual onsite inspections
- Separate organic food from non-organic food
When you buy organic food, you know that not only was is grown without toxic chemicals, but it also promotes sustainable environmental practices, and if it’s an organic animal, it’s feed met those same standards.
Be sure to look for the organic logo on products noting that it is officially recognized as meeting these requirements. Although, sometimes you may come across a food item with the word ‘organic’ on it but not display the USDA seal. This does not necessarily mean that the product is not organic. Some smaller manufacturers, farms and farmer’s markets don’t turn enough profit to meet the requirements to apply for certification and do not consistently use the label. Whenever there is any rule or regulation, there are some rule-breakers so it is possible to come across foods claiming to be organic when in fact, it is not. However, the USDA is strict about enforcing the term and violators can be fined several thousand dollars for non-compliance.
Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot-button topic in the U.S. and globally. Advocates say GMOs are a crucial way to feed the world’s growing population and combat hunger in third-world countries. Opponents argue that genetically modifying products all along our food chain will have a definite negative effect on our health. Delve into some (credibly-sourced!) research of your own to decide where you stand on the matter. However, when it comes to food labeling, know this. For a food to be labeled organic, as mentioned above, one of the criteria it needs to meet is being non-GMO. However, a food can be non-GMO but not organic. Food producers who can’t or don’t want to meet all the criteria for organic certification but who don’t use GMO crops in their production can still tout the non-GMO on their label.
Natural & Other Claims
You have probably seen terms on many food items like: Healthy, All-Natural, Raised Naturally, Made with Natural Ingredients/Flavors. Currently, there is very limited regulation on food products labeled ‘Natural.’ The exception is meat/poultry which can claim it’s natural if it does not contain artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. However, because the regulation is not air-tight, food manufacturers can take advantage of the context of wording. According to the USDA, “For example, claims indicating that a product is natural food, e.g., “Natural chili” or “chili – a natural product” would be unacceptable for a product containing beet powder which artificially colors the finished product. However, “all natural ingredients” might be an acceptable claim for such a product.” Consumer Reports did some really interesting research on the topic, showing 7 foods labeled as natural but revealing the very unnatural added ingredients.
On your next trip to the grocery store, take a closer look at the food packaging. On any given product, you will often see an important-looking statement like “Made with All-Natural oats”, “X Grams of Whole Grain”, or “100% Whole Wheat”. A statement about one thing like whole grain or protein content, can be a distraction and it is often used as a marketing ploy. You will focus on how much protein it has but not turn the box over to read how much sodium it contains, or that the top five ingredients include sugar AND malt syrup AND invert sugar. Don’t rely on the bold statements on the front of the package, but instead on the legally required information on the back which will allow you to draw your own conclusion about the product.
The more you get into the practice of reading food ingredients, the less confusing it will be when you do your shopping. You will start to pick up on the marketing tricks of food manufacturers. There is a lot of progress to be made to improve food labeling regulations, and that requires us as consumers putting pressure on the food product industry. But the most useful resources that we have right now are our hands and eyes. Don’t just put food into your shopping cart. Turn it over and read!
Share your comments or questions! What labeling do you look for when you buy food?