A Food Labeling Primer + How to Spot Truly Healthy Foods

Food labeling can be helpful, but it can also be incredibly deceptive. Here’s how to cut through the packaging BS and find truly healthy food.

Surely you’ve seen these labels on boxes, cans and bags:

“All-Natural”
“Farm Fresh”
“Made with Whole Grains”
“High in Antioxidants”

What does front of package labeling make you think about the product it’s attached to? Do you assume the product is healthier, or are you a savvy consumer who knows her way around an ingredient label?

A Food Labeling Primer + How to Spot Truly Healthy Foods

Are Buzzwords Bad?

Unfortunately, many consumers are duped by marketing or all sorts. These health buzzwords are shiny lights of awesome promise that capture our imagination and inspire us to be the type of eater we aim to be. Because these labels seem so earnest we often blindly trust the company providing the product. As Michael Pollan famously pointed out in Omnivore’s Dilemma, we want to believe the story of what the company is selling us, whether it’s chips, soda or granola bars.
The natural foods market is growing exponentially every year, which is a great thing for organic farmers and small companies– and for us! It means more delicious options for consumers, but it also means an increased number of companies vying for our attention. So it’s time to get savvy about whether or not to believe the buzz.

Food Labeling to Look For

USDA Organic LabelThe organic food label is one of the only food labels that’s regulated. Foods labeled ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic ingredients’ are regulated by the National Organic Program; and as of late last year, foods labeled gluten-free are also regulated by the FDA. But labels like whole-grain, all natural, or cage-free are wild and free: no regulation and no definition. And there is also a lot of evidence to prove that these health buzzwords are actually hiding some pretty unhealthy, unnatural or inhumane foods. But companies know that these buzzwords make sales.

In a study last year, the journal Food Studiesfound that participants assumed that products notated with labels like all-natural, organic, and antioxidant were healthier when labeled with these tags. The products were anything but healthy: tortilla chips, fruit snacks and soda, respectively. But when the labels were removed, participants rated them less healthy than with the labels. The study made clear that these buzzword labels can have a profound influence on purchasing decision and expectations of the product.

In other contexts this is known as ‘leanwashing,’ or structure-function claims. Whatever you call them, the purpose is to lead consumers to believe a product is healthier than it might actually be. And the buzzwords mentioned at the top don’t even begin to scratch the surface of what labels are allowed to say: what about ‘builds strong bones’ and ‘helps maintain bowel regularity’. Like ‘all-natural,’ these claims have no real definition and can be made for basically any product.

How to Choose (and Use) the Best Foods for Your Health

So no, do not believe the buzz of the healthy-looking labels. The best way to learn about whether a food is good for you or contains beneficial ingredients is by skipping the labels entirely and heading straight for the ingredient list. Despite what’s on the front, the ingredient list (mostly) cannot lie, and it’s there that you will find whether the buzz has any meaning.

The best way to avoid these potentially deceptive labels entirely is to focus your shopping of fresh veggies, fruits and other foods that don’t have any packaging. This is easier said than done, of course, as most of us rely on a slew of packaged products to get through our week of meal planning. Here are some tips for shopping without being swayed by the power of marketing:

  • Choose bulk foods for freedom from labeling tyranny: Bulk lentils, rice, flours and spices are wholesome, whole foods that don’t need any buzz to sell well and convince you they are healthy.
  • Buy fresh: With fresh foods, what you see is what you get. When possible, choose locally-made bread, pasta, oils, chocolates and other delectable staples to support the smaller companies and their (hopefully) more honest approach to marketing their wares.
  • Know your ingredients: Know which hidden ingredients to avoid that are animal-derived,GMO or just not good for you. Sure, de-germed wheat flour is vegan, but it probably doesn’t offer much nutritional value. Know what to avoid, but also learn what’s good: a small ingredient list of recognizable foods, whole food ingredients (think: grapes instead of dehydrated grape juice extract) and ingredients you know you trust is what you want to see.
  • Evaluate your purchases: Could the product you purchased have been made at home? Is there an organic version of it available as a better option?
  • Make it yourself: Not everyone has time for homemade pasta sauce, soups, or homemade salsa but maybe you can sneak in some homemade almond milk, DIY hummus and bread? Making homemade foods can make you feel really empowered as a chef, and making a few meals a week will help decrease the amount of labeled food in your diet, setting you free from the tyranny of labels!

Ignore the buzzwords out there on processed foods and just stick to whole foods — it’s easier, efficient, and gets rid of the need to read and scrutinize everything you buy

A version of this post originally appeared on One Green Planet; image via Shutterstock.

 

Written by Andrea Bertoli

Andrea is a marketing and media professional focused on mission-driven businesses. She currently manages sales at CleanTechnica, the world’s largest cleantech news website. She has worked at startups, in small businesses, and as a freelancer, and brings years of marketing, event management, and community outreach skills to our team. She’s also a plant-based chef, author, and educator, and teaches monthly cooking classes, manages a wellness website, and is always in the kitchen making delicious foods – which you can peek on.

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