Eating is intimate. With every bite of food, we internalize a part of our outside environment. As a dietitian, I believe we need to know what’s in our food, who produced it, and under what conditions, in order to best nourish ourselves, feed our families well, and protect our planet. Here are 5 important things to look for on food labels — important keys to food label literacy:
Nutrition Facts Panel Upgrade
The nutrient run-down on food packages reveals how much bang we get for our food bucks — and it just got an overhaul, thanks to the FDA.
Be sure to check nutrients against calories and serving size.
For example, my 5-ounce bag of crunchy delicious potato chips contains 5 — F-I-V-E — servings, with 140 calories each. So…if I split that bag with a fellow chip lover, I’ll need to multiply calories and nutrients by 2.5. If I eat the whole bag, I’d multiply by five. Ouch.
While we’re on the nutrition panel, look for fiber under “total carbohydrates.” Our goal: Choose breads and cereals with at least 2 grams of fiber per serving — the more the merrier for healthy gut microbes.
Next, check sugars. By 2018, manufacturers will have to include “added sugars,” making it easier for us to know how much sugar was added by the manufacturer vs. how much occurs naturally in the food.
Example: One cup of milk has 10 grams of sugar. That may seem like a lot, but it all comes from naturally occurring lactose. On the other hand, one can of regular soda contains 39 grams of added sugar. To convert grams of sugar into teaspoons, divide by four — so that can of soda contains around 10 teaspoons of added sugar! The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women, and nine for men.
Since it’s barbecue season, let’s compare the sodium content of canned baked beans vs. cooked dry beans.
One half-cup of canned beans contains 573 milligrams (mg) of sodium, whereas those cooked from scratch contain 0 to 4 mg. Note: the 2015 -2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (the amount in one teaspoon of table salt), which means that serving of canned beans is 1/4 of your daily dose of sodium.
Balancing nutrients can be tricky, but with the new Nutrition Facts label, we hope it will be a bit simpler to see what’s really in our food. In general, remember, fresh is best!
This is like the recipe for a food product. Ingredients must be listed in order of prevalence by weight. I like to compare product names with ingredients for discrepancies.
Example: Cereals labeled as “honey and nut” may contain more sugar than honey, and NO nuts; just “nut flavor.”
Confused? Here’s a tip: If the first few ingredients match the product name, you’re in the clear. If they don’t, check another brand or consider making the product from scratch.
Beware! This watch-word means essentially nothing, but could cost you more. The FDA is in the process of considering a formal legal definition, while the USDA’s weak definition applies only to meat and poultry. Furthermore, the USDA’s definition refers only to post-slaughter handling, not how the animal was raised.
Confused? Here’s a tip: Choose organic. It has strict rules and regulations so that it actually means something — a lot, in fact.
While not a “GMO-free” claim, the Non-GMO Project seal tells us that products were made according to best practices for GMO avoidance. The Project allows a threshold of 0.9% GMO, in accordance with European law.
The non-GMO seal does not apply to pesticides, hormones or antibiotic use, unless GMOs are included in their formulation.
Example: Non-GMO bread won’t contain GMO ingredients, but it may contain wheat that was sprayed with herbicides, such as glyphosate.
The GMO labeling bill signed into law by President Obama last week is not the labeling solution we had hoped for. Rather than requiring a simple, at-a-glance label, the bill would allow companies to “label” their products with a phone number or QR code. These strange symbols must be scanned with a smart phone — not fair to those who don’t have, want or can’t afford a smart phone. Both of these options puts the burden on the consumer to discover what’s in their food rather than being able to see at-a-glance. And again, this government-mandated GMO labeling would also not indicate pesticide, hormone or antibiotic use.
This label carries the greatest value in terms of food safety and quality. The USDA Organic seal guarantees that our food was not produced with synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones, sewage sludge, or antibiotics.
Finally, organic agriculture promotes soil health, biodiversity, and requires livestock to be raised on pasture, all of which translates to more healthful food! Organic foods provide higher levels of beneficial fats and antioxidants, and lower levels of pesticide residues.
On July 29th, President Obama signed Senate Bill 764 (also known as the “DARK Act”) into law, prohibiting individual states from having their own GMO labeling laws. The law also allows food manufacturers to use a “QR” code that must be scanned with a smart phone instead of printed text openly revealing GMO ingredients. While we wait to see exactly how this GMO labeling “compromise” shakes out over the next two years (the USDA has two years to work out the details of implementation), here’s how to avoid genetically engineered ingredients:
- Choose Organic: This is the most comprehensive label there is, covering GMOs as well as pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, animal welfare and sustainable farming practices.
- Look for the Non-GMO verified seal: While not “GMO-free” and doesn’t address chemical use, it’s a good option when you simply want to avoid genetically engineered ingredients in packaged foods.
- Check Nutrition Facts and ingredient lists: Any product containing corn, soy, canola, vegetable oil, and sugar (from sugar beets, not cane), and is not labeled as “organic” or “non-GMO,” will most assuredly contain genetically engineered ingredients. Also remember to watch for the “added sugar” line coming soon to the Nutrition Facts panel.
There’s no reason to compromise our health. Be label-literate and eat well.