Clean Eating 101: Understanding Food Labels

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More and more people are becoming aware of the war between safe, organic foods and chemically altered, steroid induced foods. We live in a day and an age where personal choice matters, especially when it comes to protecting our bodies from poisonous hormones and pesticides. Knowledge is the most important weapon consumers can use against the major food corporations that hide behind unethical farming practices. The most uneasy thing to consider is the attempt to trick consumers with organic-looking packaging and words normally associated with organic products.

It was specifically for this reason that organic farmers began to drop the organic label. They felt it could not be trusted anymore, and they were right. Now there are so many misleading words on labels that consumers may think they are buying a truly organic product when they are really buying hormone-packed meats or genetically altered materials.

Many farmers couldn’t keep up with the ridiculous amount of paperwork they were forced to complete just to have their foods officially labeled as organic. It is these same farmers who use methods that are stricter than the United Stated Department of Agriculture requires.

Any rare label stating the food is beyond organic is referring to these dedicated farmers who took it one step above the corporations and refused to get drowned out by misleading labels.

The truth is in the labels, but with so many out there, it can be difficult to weed out what is good and what isn’t. There are key words and phrases you can look for to be sure you are supporting an organic company and getting the best foods for your body. Take a look.

The Country of Origin Labeling

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The Country of Origin Labeling program, or the COOL program, is an information program for the consumer. All foods, including imported foods, are required to meet USDA food and safety standards as well as the standards of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The COOL program maintains the law that retailers must reveal the crop’s country of origin to the consumer. Foods that are covered under the COOL law are:

  • cuts of beef, chicken, lamb, goat, pork, and veal
  • ground beef, chicken, lamb, goat, and pork
  • ginseng
  • peanuts
  • macadamia nuts
  • pecan nuts
  • wild fish
  • wild shellfish
  • farm raised fish
  • farm raised shellfish
  • any perishable agricultural commoditie

Genetically Modified Organisms

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Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are traits of plants altered mostly to ensure a longer shelf life. There are many major environmental concerns about this practice, but it is still perfectly legal. Any product that contains GMOs is not required to be labeled, which is obviously also very concerning. To ensure you are not consuming GMOs, check for the USDA-Organic Certified label or the Non-GMO project verified seal. There are also more certified label listings below to check out.

The whole process of creating a GMO food begins in a lab where a scientist removes one or more genes from one organism and combines them with the plant they would like to modify. When adding new, different genes, the goal is that the plant expresses traits of the organism it was combined with. For instance, scientists have given the DNA of regular corn genes from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, sometimes known as Bt. The Bt genes gives out proteins that kill insects, which mean the corn can produce its own pesticide. This may sound good in theory, but what happens when humans consume the corn?

Therein lies the debate. While some say that using GMO technology is just another way of breeding plants, others are concerned about the long term effects of these genetic modifications. Not only that, but the concerns also lie with feeding the animals we are going to eat with foods that we wouldn’t want in our own bodies.
Unlike plant breeders, who combine plants of the same or related species, GMO scientists transfer genes from viruses, bacteria, and even sometimes animals. Since genes are complex, they are still not fully understood; therefore, the outcome of such splicing is unpredictable and frankly somewhat scary for most of us who are paying attention.

Despite the research and evidence that these genetically altered foods are bad for us, they still hold a shockingly large place in today’s markets, mostly going unnoticed. Listed below are certain GMO foods that are currently approved by the United States Department of Agriculture and should especially be checked for proper organic labels.

  • alfalfa
  • arctic apples
  • canola
  • corn
  • cotton
  • innate potatoes
  • papaya
  • sugar beets
  • soybeans
  • yellow squash
  • zucchini

Need more reasons to double check your labels for the Non-GMO stamp? Start with the genetically modified corn and Roundup herbicides. A study found that a major food corporation, Monsanto, is proud of their GMO corn that creates its own pesticide without much upkeep or care from farmers. A huge problem with their science experiment is that when the corn was fed to lab rats, it caused kidney, liver, and pituitary gland damage as well as tumors, hormonal disruption, and premature death.

Pigs fed with this corn suffered severe stomach inflammation, and the females, when compared to a healthy female, had a 25% heavier uterus. All of these findings indicated, blatantly, that the potential adverse health or toxic effects needed further investigating.

Genetically modified corn has also blatantly affected male fertility and blood biochemistry, and has damaged organs. When fed genetically modified potatoes, lab mice showed abnormal cells and abnormally functioning of the small intestines. This test clearly showed that the added Bt does not break down once entered into the digestive system, like GMO experts have claimed.

Non-GMO Project Verified

The Non-GMO Project Verified has a mission, and that mission is to properly label non-GMO foods so consumers aren’t clueless. Organic, healthy foods and GMOs have really been at war. Sadly, even with the sickening findings of most of the scientific tests, GMOs are legal and are rarely even marked on the label. The best way to avoid buying genetically altered foods is to assume they are in everything unless proven otherwise by legitimate certification.

Are you ready for another disturbing fact? Unfortunately, over 70% of processed foods sold in grocery stores and foods used in restaurants contain genetically modified ingredients like corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton. Half of the sugar that is used in processed food products is from genetically modified sugar beets. So how are we supposed to avoid GMOs when they are everywhere? Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified certification on the label for starters, and avoid the foods mentioned above if they are not clearly marked.

Secondly, start eating organic everything. Don’t be thrown off or discouraged by pricing, either. Some organic foods tend to be a little more expensive than their unhealthy competitors, but nothing can beat the price of not getting sick, or worse, developing a disease. Getting truly organic food reduces the risk of your food being contaminated by GMOs and the unnecessary, sometimes fatally toxic pesticides that usually go hand in hand with them. Even though genetically modified foods are approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture, they are not allowed to have the organic stamp of approval if they are not actually organic. This should somewhat put your mind at ease.

Buy local. Local farmers most likely are not genetically altering anything, and supporting local farmers supports your local community in a lot of ways. You can also become your own farmer and grow a lot of foods. Always make sure you are getting the right kind of organic, as explained below.

Three Degrees of Organic

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Organic food does not contain anything non-organic in the ingredients, but with the word “organic” floating around so much these days, it is easy to get confused on what really is organic and what isn’t. What goes on a food label is determined by the USDA, United States Department of Agriculture, and according to them, there are three different categories for the representation of organic foods.

  • 100% Organic: This label says exactly what it means. When you see this on a label, one hundred percent organic food will be in that packaging. Obviously, you can’t get much better than that. If you choose to buy only organic food, look for this label and save yourself a lot of time.
  • Organic: Food labels that state they are organic means that 95% really is organic and the other 5% is not. Alternately, that left-over 5% will not contain growth hormones, which is comforting at the very least.
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: This is where things get a little hairy. If the food has at least 70% organic ingredients, the label may state that it is “made with” organic ingredients. What that means is the other 30% of this food is non-organic.

Organic Meat

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The labels pasted on meat packaging can be somewhat deceiving, and there are a few different things to remember when searching. The first things are “Natural” and “All Natural,” which are great in that nothing synthetic has been physically added to the meat. Unfortunately, these words can’t say much for the diet or conditions in which the animal lived. All these things play an important role in the quality of the meat and in the quality of your conscience as you consume it.

  • Vegetarian Fed: Another term that really seems like an empty promise is the vegetarian-fed or the vegetarian diet label. The government does not regulate terms like these, so you would have to trust the company.
    Grass Fed: Similarly, grass fed doesn’t necessarily mean what it should, which is eating grass while roaming around in a pasture. It only refers to the diet, so again, a loop hole can be found, and with USDA approval, no less. If you’re looking for actual certification of an actually grass-fed animal from a free range pasture, look for the AGA (American Grass-fed Association) label. This guarantees the animal had access to 100% forage diet, zero confinement, zero antibiotics, and zero hormones.
  • Free Range: Free range and free roaming are over-used terms that have been taken advantage of in the biggest sense of the word. Yes, free range is great, but does it mean what we think it means? Interestingly, the USDA doesn’t define the conditions for what the free range actually should be. What that means is that while one free range chicken is living on a farm, another is living smashed together with a million other chickens on a small patch of dirt. As long as they have access to the outdoors, they may be considered free roaming.
  • Cage Free: The words “cage free” also do not necessarily mean that the animal, usually chickens, was living and healthy on a farm somewhere; it was more likely in a warehouse. Again, as long as they are technically not in a cage, the company may use this label.
  • Fresh: This is another one that is sort of vague and misused. “Fresh” doesn’t mean that approved pesticides such as mild chlorine, mild acid wash, and ionizing radiation haven’t been used once the crop has been harvested.
  • Grain Fed: This is a vague and general claim that really doesn’t hold much weight either. As a matter of fact, as far as making an educated decision, it tells the consumer nothing. Grains could be used as part of a vegetarian diet; that’s all it really tells you.
  • Good Source Of/ Contains/Provides: Any time you see one of these, proof must be provided that it contains at least 10% of the daily dose of the nutrient as recommended by the USDA.
  • High Source Of/ Rich In/Excellent Source Of: These terms are required to prove that at least 20% of the daily allowance of the nutrient is contained as recommended by the USDA.

Unnecessary Additives

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Seeing the terms below on our food labels should make us feel comfortable about what we are buying. The USDA demands proof of these claims and is responsible for making sure the claims are true.

  • No Antibiotics: Antibiotics are used in animals to manage and or to prevent disease. Seeing this on a label ensures that you will be eating a healthy animal.
  • No Hormones: This is another important one to watch out for when choosing meat. The use of hormones promotes fast growth and increased milk production. These two words should be followed by “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
  • No Nitrates/Nitrites: Nitrates are used to preserve meat to prevent food poisoning. Nitrates have also been linked to stomach and pancreatic cancers.
  • Water Chilled: While water may not be considered an additive per say, chickens that are water-chilled, that’s soaked and chilled in chlorinated water, can absorb and retain water, which both dilutes the flavor and inflates the cost. Air-chilled chickens are chilled in a cold room with plenty of air circulation and without added weight.
  • Irradiation: This is when foods are exposed to radiant energy to eliminate bacteria, reduce the amount of pathogenic microorganisms, extend shelf-life, and get rid of insects. The “treated with irradiation” label is not required to be placed on processed foods made with irradiated ingredients.
  • rBST/rBGH Free: Recombinant bovine somatotropin or recombinant bovine growth hormones are hormones used in cattle to produce more milk at a faster rate. Traces of the hormone can be found in the milk. The use of this hormone is banned in many countries because of the negative health effects it has on the cattle.
  • Integrated Pest Management: Otherwise called IPM, the Integrated Pest Management carefully monitors for threats of pests and uses smaller amounts of hazardous pesticides by greatly reducing the use of chemicals.

True Organic Labels

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A common misconception of organic food labels is that if it is locally grown, it must be organic. This is not necessarily so, mostly due to the fact that this term isn’t nationally regulated. Locally grown foods are grown and produced within a certain region or state, no matter what the conditions or mission of the farm.

Don’t lose hope just yet! There are some clear things to look for when buying organic. These are the best three telltale signs that you are truly getting an organic product.

  • Animal Welfare Approved (AWA): This is a guarantee that the animals were raised on a pasture with the strictest standards in place by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. These standards are made with collaborative efforts of farmers, veterinarians, scientists, and researchers for absolute best results.
  • Biodynamic: This refers to a holistic agriculture practice where farmers utilize nature to run their farms, like using composting and crop rotation to maintain a truly natural environment. Unlike conventional farmers, biodynamic farmers don’t rely on chemical solutions like pesticides or hormones.
  • Sustainable: This is a very strong term stating that the food has been all-around approved as natural agriculture that is safe for the environment and is therefore an important staple in the local community.

Third Party Certified

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Third party certification or verification means that the food has been inspected by an independent operator and is not of the distributor or the retailer. This process is meant to make the food labels reliable by involving an impartial party.

Humane Certified

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Humane Certified is a term we can finally sink our teeth into. As an organic shopper, you will usually want to know every aspect of a product and to weed out all the loopholes. Humane Certified basically sums it up, and luckily for us, this label is held to a high standard. Anytime you see this on a food label, you know you are getting the best possible outcome of an organically raised crop or animal, no questions asked.

What this means, especially with animals, is that first and foremost, they are treated with respect and genuine care. A healthy diet and healthy amount of space is given without hormones or antibiotics. This is not only humane, but in the long run, raising a healthier animal to eat means more healthy nutrients in our own bodies.
Humane Certified labels guarantee standards from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair trade labels are an important thought to farmers and appreciation for their proper way of farming. This means that instead of shelling out all of your money to corporations, you are instead comforted by good business and quality products. Standards for fair trade certified farms and farmers come from the Fair-trade Labeling Organization or FLO.

  • Fair Price: Farmers are guaranteed fair prices for their crops and animals and are credited for the next set of crops and animals. Fair price is for continued business and quality product.
  • Fair Labor: Workers work in safe environments and receive fair wages.
  • Direct Trade: Fair Trade farmers deal directly with the buyers, leaving out the cost of middle men, which ultimately means for money for the farmer.
  • Community Development: Fair Trade farmers invest in the community with business development projects, new schools, trainings, and organic certifications.
  • Environmental Sustainability: This encourages all-natural and prohibits the use of GMOs as well as harmful chemicals. It is an overall healthy method for farmers, consumers, the environment, the crops and animals, and the entire ecosystem.

Food Alliance Certified

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Food Alliance Certified is a sustainable certification that includes farmers, environmentalists, scientists, distributors, processors, and the consumer. Farm fresh fruits, vegetables, and animals are verified as an entire farm.

The Food Alliance aims to change the marketplace and give the consumers what they want: healthy and organic food. The use of GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, and water and habitat conservation are prohibited and cannot be certified.

  • More certifications to know about include:
  • Aurora Certified Organic
  • Certified Organic, Inc.
  • Demeter Certified Biodynamic
  • Global Organic Alliance
  • Guaranteed Organic Certification Agency
  • Integrity Certified International
  • International Certification Services, Inc.
  • NMOCC-Certified Organic
  • OneCent
  • Quality Assurance International-Certified Organic
  • Quality Certification Services

United States Department of Agriculture-Approved

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We like to think we can trust the USDA, and for the most part, their golden seal of approval is worth something. This is especially true with something labeled USDA-Certified Organic. USDA-Certified Grass-fed is another story, and does not necessarily mean that there were no hormones or antibiotics used in the raising of livestock. If you are unclear of whether or not the USDA is giving you the best certification, check for more keywords on the label that will indicate or confirm its organic nature.

Supporting Generations of Farming

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More often than not, farming is a family business, usually owned and inherited for generations upon generations. Farmers that fit this description and have been in business for at least 50 years are allowed to have a special label telling you so. While these terms may not tell you of their specific farming practices, they do tell you that family knowledge of farming techniques have been passed down. Normally, that counts for something as family farms have a general reputation for using natural, organic methods.

  • Heirloom: Crops that have the Heirloom label refer to a unique variety of farmer’s crops that are different from the commercial varieties. Heirloom crops are used by farmers through generations of seed saving and selection as well as cultivation.
  • Heritage: This refers to breeds of livestock and crops that have been able to adapt to the changing conditions of the environment and potential local diseases. Heritage livestock grow at a slower rate and thrive best in pasture settings.

Foods That Don’t Require a Label

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There are certain instances where the distributor is not required to label or list all of their ingredients in the packaging.

Foods that don’t require every ingredient be labeled include:

  • Catered foods
  • Small packets of food (chewing gum, etc.)
  • Alcohol

Foods that aren’t required to have labels at all include:

  • Food that is packaged where it is sold
  • Unpackaged food
  • Delivered food
  • Fruits and vegetables in clear packaging.
  • Food served at a fundraiser

Foods That Must Be Shown On Labels Because of Allergies

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  • products that contain gluten
  • crustacea
  • eggs
  • fish
  • milk
  • tree nuts and sesame seeds
  • peanuts
  • soybeans
  • added sulfites
  • pollen
  • aspartame
  • quinine
  • guarana
  • phytosterols
  • phytosterol esters
  • propolis
  • rice milk
  • soy milk
  • caffeine
  • unpasteurized milk and egg products

Brand Representation through False Labeling

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The next time you go to check out food labels, you will probably notice that the brand name takes up most of the space. While it is important to pay attention to brands you know and trust, it is sometimes easier to ignore the brand and go with the facts on the packaging. All brands and advertisements on food packaging are required to comply with the Fair Trading Act and the Food Act. These two acts work collectively to make sure retailers are not putting misleading or untruthful information on their food labels in order to make more sales.

Examples of misleading information include:

  • false claims that a product encourages weight loss when it actually doesn’t
  • claims that a product has therapeutic or prophylactic components when it doesn’
  • the use of the word “health,” unless it is in the brand name
  • directly or indirectly implying medical advice
  • the use of references to a physiological condition or disease.

The Bottom Line

Understanding labels proves to be of major importance when it comes to taking care of ourselves, our planet, and everything in it. It also stresses the awareness we should all have as consumers. A few extra moments taken to double check labels and packaging is worth a lifetime of health and less full of disease. Make it a point to support the companies who want to sell quality products rather than take advantage of you.

The less we buy contaminated products, the less these businesses will thrive. In Australia and New Zealand, the Health Star Rating system has been put in place to offer nutritional facts to consumers and shows comparisons of other like products alike. This is set in place to allow the consumer to make their decision on which products are best. Maybe we can look forward this labeling in the future to help make our organic efforts a little easier.