Health Claims on Food Labels: What's True and What Isn't
Food label experts answer some of the most perplexing questions about the meaning behind various food label terms to help you separate the ones that deliver from those that don’t.
Reading the information on food packaging—especially the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list—can help you make wiser choices. But some of the wording you see on the front of packages entices you to pick—and pay more for—products that aren’t exactly what they seem. Here, food label experts answer some of the most perplexing questions about the meaning behind various food label terms to help you separate the ones that deliver from those that don’t.
Should I Buy Natural or Organic?
“Many consumers think that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ foods share many of the same attributes,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst and food labeling expert at Consumer Reports. But the terms are not synonymous. “Organic has strong, comprehensive federal standards that address how foods are farmed and processed, with a lot of requirements and prohibitions for farmers and processors,” Vallaeys says. For example, organic foods may not be produced with most synthetic pesticides or with all artificial flavors or colors, antibiotics, or growth hormones. Natural has only one regulated definition—on meat and poultry, it means the product was minimally processed, according to the Department of Agriculture. On other foods, the term is essentially meaningless.
Shop smart: Until government agencies provide a meaningful regulatory definition for the term “natural,” which Consumer Reports has called on them to do, look for the USDA Organic seal if you want foods produced without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, or all genetically engineered crops, chemical processing aids, or artificial ingredients. It may keep you healthier: In one new JAMA Internal Medicine study that followed nearly 70,000 adults for an average of five years, researchers found an association between frequent consumption of organic food and a reduced risk of cancer. Though the study does not prove cause and effect, those who ate organic food most often had a 25 percent lower risk of being diagnosed with cancer than those who seldom ate organic food.
Is Multigrain Healthier Than Whole Wheat?
“Multigrain just means there’s a mixture of grains, most of which may be refined,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University. In contrast to whole wheat or other whole grains (such as oats), refined grains are processed to have the outer bran and inner germ stripped away. That leaves just the endosperm, which is primarily composed of starchy carbohydrates and is low in nutrients. Though some—but not all—vitamins are added back to refined grains and flours (hence the term “enriched”), a key missing component, especially for older adults, is fiber. A high-fiber diet helps protect against age-related diseases, such as diabetes, some types of cancer, and heart disease.
Shop smart: If a whole grain (whole wheat, oats, or brown rice, for example) is first in a product’s ingredients list, it is likely to contain a decent amount of whole grains. But your best option is to look for products in which every grain listed is a whole one or for products that carry a claim such as “100 percent whole wheat” or “100 percent whole grain.” Watch for terms such as “made with whole grains,” though. The product may contain just a sprinkling of whole grains.
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