Esteemed food writer Michael Pollan said it best: ”Don’t eat food with health claims on the labels." Although at first glance, that sounds wrong, consider this: the best food (kale, blueberries, salmon, garlic, sweet potatoes, etc.) does not come with claims. But your cereal (reduces heart disease by 30 percent) and your juice (has been shown to supply 20 percent of your daily need for vitamin C) do. These are food claims... And you should turn a blind eye to them.
Processed food, the stuff in boxes and canisters and wrappers, aka food with a big advertising budget, often comes with health claims. Real food does not. Stick with real food whenever possible. Take your time to understand food labels and food ingredients instead. If you read, or worse, believe the health claims on packages, you’re wasting time and money. It’s just marketing. Don’t be pulled in!
Although you should ignore food claims, there is benefit in understanding food labels. Labels are different than food claims and can be confusing to determine what they really mean. Labels are things like free-range, grass-fed, all-vegetarian feed, cage-free. What do these really mean? The terminology used to describe food is sometimes artful, sometimes straightforward and sometimes deceptive.
Food labels fall into three broad categories:
1. Those that are regulated by U.S. food agencies and come with legal definitions.
2. Those that are verified/certified by an independent agency (a good thing).
3. Those that unverified. This can be good or bad. Good if the company has integrity but bad if they don’t. If something you love makes an unverified claim and you want to be sure that it is accurate, call the manufacturer to request more information.
Here are the definitions:
1. Certified Angus -- Although this falls into the second broad category, it really has nothing to do with the health of your food and how the cow was raised. It has everything to do with the genetics of the cow. If all you care about is tenderness and flavor, then you want to look for this label.
2. Biodynamic -- The keen observer should keep an eye out for this label. You won’t find many biodymanic items in your local supermarket. It’s more apt to be found in artisanal grocers and Whole Foods. The biodynamic label is one of the best there is. It even exceeds USDA organic. It falls into the second category. Biodynamic agriculture was developed in the early 1920s and is based on the work of Austrian writer, educator and social activist Rudolf Steiner and has to do with the spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture. The USDA and FDA do not legally define biodynamic, but the label is widely respected. The certifying agency is Demeter.
3. No Hormones Added -- This is more of a food claim, because the USDA does not allow hormones in raising pork or poultry. So often you will see this claim on these packages. Although it must be followed with the statement “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones," often in fine print.
But if you do see this claim on beef, it means something. The USDA only allows this claim on beef if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer showing that no hormones have been added. Scary thing is that most supermarket beef does NOT have this label which means that there are hormones in your average cut of supermarket meat. Although the USDA is charged with proper use of this claim, there is no independent third party verification in place. My best advice? If you have access to a small family farm where you can buy your meat, take advantage of that!
4. Omega-3-enriched -- This falls into category three, meaning it is an unverified term. Eggs that are sold as omega-3-enriched come from chickens that have been fed flaxseed, which is high in omega-3, the good kind of fat. True grass-fed and pastured animals will naturally have higher levels of omega-3 fats without any dietary additions. Again, I would rather buy from a small family farm where I know the hens have access to the outdoors. Not possible for everyone, but if you can, do so.
5. Vegetarian feed -- This label just says that your animal was fed a vegetarian diet but does not say anything about the way it was raised, whether it had pasture access or whether it was administered drugs, most likely antibiotics. A meaningless label often seen on egg cartons.
6. Cage-Free -- A meaningless term because it means so little and is unverified. While these egg laying hens may be raised without cages, they often live inside large warehouses with thousands of other birds. This term does not say whether they had access to the outdoors. Beak cutting is permitted. You are much better off with the certified humane label.
7. Certified Humane Raised and Handled -- This label is not widely used but is one of the better ones. They have a stringent set of guidelines that producers must meet for their end products to bear this label. According to Certified Humane, animals are only administered drugs to reduce pain and suffering and are used responsibly and carefully. You can trust that you are getting the healthiest thing for both you and the environment.
8. rBGH free -- Monsanto is the maker of this growth hormone that is given to cows to boost milk production. “rBGH free” is an unregulated term because it is not legally defined and there is no independent 3rd party that functions as a watch dog group. Again, you are just relying on the integrity of the company that makes the product and uses this term. Often seen on milk and cheese. By definition, organic milk does not contain this hormone.
9. Whole Grain-This label has independent 3rd party verification by the Whole Grains Council. Can appear on a cookie (with lots of sugar and bad quality fat in it) as well as a bag of quinoa. Whole grains contain all of its parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm and are usually better than their “white” counterparts, but choose carefully nonetheless. Also know that intact whole grains like brown rice and quinoa are far better than the products made with them, such as cookies, bread, muffins, etc.
10. GMO free-This is found on plant and seafood. Currently, there is no mandatory labeling for GMO foods today. According to the non GMO project, the organization committed to build transparency into the food supply where GMO’s are concerned, “GMO free claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitation of testing methodology and the risk of contamination is too high to reliably claim that a product is GMO free.” The project’s claim offers a true statement acknowledging the reality of contamination risk, but assures the shopper that the product in question is in compliance with their rigorous standards. In other words, GMO’s have so infiltrated the food system that even non GMO verification (whether through the non GMO project, USDA Organic) doesn’t truly guarantee that your food is 100% GMO free. If you want GMO free food, your best bet is to buy organics or products bearing the non GMO Project seal or certified organic food. If you see something labeled “non GMO” without an organic or non GMO Project verification seal, the claim is not verified.
Well, there you go. Is your head spinning? The food industry and its marketing and regulatory agencies are confusing even for the savviest consumer.
If you want more information around healthy food choices and hormone balance, you can grab my guide to perimenopause at www.mariascopes.com