Trying to follow a healthy diet can be difficult and trying to determine what products to buy at the grocery store can be even more difficult. Reading labels is a good start, but knowing that much of the labeling is simply a marketing tactic to get you to buy the product is key to choosing the best products. Food marketing terminology is developed to sell food, not to improve your health. Much of the time, marketers add eye-catching words on the package to make you believe their products are good for you. In reality, many of these products are still processed junk.
Wander down any aisle at the grocery store and you will find plenty of products labeled "all-natural", "made with real fruit", or "supports a healthy immune system". Terrific you think. After all, you are trying to clean up your diet and you know you want to add more natural products to your meal plan. But, did you know that the terms "natural" or "all natural" really have no defined meaning?
In fact, like many other seemingly healthy terms, the word "natural" has no regulated meaning. The USDA has stated that natural meat and poultry cannot contain artificial colors, flavors, or synthetic chemicals and can undergo only minimal processing. But this does not mean that the meat is offered to you as you expect. Saline solutions and other "natural" ingredients could be added to enhance the flavor, improve the texture or increase the bulk of the product.
Have you ever bought a package of chicken breasts that had the words "contains up to 15% of natural chicken broth" or "may contain up to 12% saline solution"? Yes, the chicken can still be labeled natural even though it has been unnaturally plumped up with water and salt. This added solution raises the sodium level of something you think is healthy. Fresh chicken breast is naturally low in sodium but the added solution can easily transform that chicken breast into a high sodium food.
Now consider the cost. Whatever the price of that chicken breast, 12-15% of your cost is saline solution. That's a hefty price to pay for salt water!
Beyond meat and eggs, "natural" has no regulatory definition and is a term that can basically be applied to anything. You may think you are choosing a healthy snack food, but look at the ingredient list and you might notice high fructose corn syrup or modified food starch. Natural? Starches and gums are often added to yogurt to thicken it and give it a creamier texture. Natural - yes. A healthy choice - no.
The FDA has stated that
Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term "natural," we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of "natural" in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term "natural" to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term "natural" should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.
So your "natural" products may be full of pesticides, plumped up with added solutions, and may have absolutely no nutritional or health benefit. And currently, other than meat and poultry, there is no oversight on products labeled natural.
Companies can use words such as "healthy" or "natural" on their labels, but these words have no real definition. Front of the box labels may make you think you are making a healthy choice but those words are added merely to make a sale.
Health claims on products are also difficult to decipher. Have you purchased items that "support your immune system", "improves your energy", or "may help to lower cholesterol"? Again, these are vague, meaningless marketing claims meant to get you to buy the product.
According to US News,
"While the FDA gives the vague guideline that they must be "truthful and not misleading," it does not require any scientific evidence for these claims to be made. A CSPI report gives an example of how confusing this can be: The label "may help reduce the risk of heart disease" would require FDA approval, while "helps maintain a healthy heart" would not."
Confusing isn't it?
How about the word fresh? We always want to pick the freshest products while we are at the grocery store. They will last longer, taste better, and are more nutritious. Or are they?
When surveying the produce section, know that "fresh" only means raw and unprocessed - does not necessarily indicate how recently the produce was picked. Yes, those berries are "fresh", but the strawberries you grab can range from green to moldy and still be considered fresh.
And how about those chicken breasts? Of course you want to buy the freshest, but what does that mean?
Contrary to what you might expect, the label “fresh” is used only on poultry to indicate that the meat was not cooled below 26 degrees F. Poultry does not have to be labeled as “frozen” until it reaches zero degrees F. This can be misleading to customers who assume that label means meat has not been frozen, processed or preserved in any way. The USDA does not define or regulate the use of the “fresh” label on any other type of products. https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/about/live-healthy/consumer-labels
Along with fresh meat, most of us are looking for meat that has not been chemically enhanced with hormones or antibiotics. And a few major companies are quick to point out that their chickens are raised completely hormone free. So we pay the extra to buy from that company because who wants chicken with added hormones?
In fact, all chicken sold in the stores must by law be free of added hormones.
Federal law prohibits the use of hormones on hogs and poultry. Any hormone-free label on pork and poultry products is intended to mislead shoppers into thinking that the product is worthy of a higher price. The USDA requires that these labels on pork or poultry include a disclaimer: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry/pork.” https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/about/live-healthy/consumer-labels
Talking about chicken, do you choose the eggs that are cage free/free range? Again, you are probably paying a premium for something that has little meaning. Basically these terms mean the chickens were allowed to roam outside, but there is no real regulation as to how much space they are given or how much time is spent outside.
Grass fed beef has become the choice of many, especially those touting any type of low-carb diet. But if you choose grass fed beef because you believe the cows are free to roam and live a happy cow life, know that by definition a "grass fed" animal is one that is raised primarily on ranges rather than in a feedlot, which means that they can be contained and still show this label, as long as they are allowed to graze. The term grass-fed only means the animal is allowed to graze, leaving plenty of room for interpretation and giving producers a broad and mostly unregulated spectrum of what defines grass fed.
Grass fed beef is generally higher in some nutrients than grain fed beef, but the animal can still be treated with hormones and antibiotics. And while the cow may only be grass fed, that does not necessarily mean it is fed grass that has been untreated with chemicals.
Trusted third-party verifications can help you make better choices. The PCO 100% Grassfed Certification is an optional certification for producers who are certified organic. The American Grassfed Seal indicates the animal was fed only a grass and forage based diet from weaning to harvest and never treated with antibiotics or hormones. Unfortunately, these verifications come at an added expense, making it difficult financially for smaller producers to become verified.
But this verification may be the only way for you to determine whether or not your choice of beef is truly grass fed. The USDA does not define the term and this lack of definition leaves plenty of room for producers and marketers to determine their own meaning of grass fed.
In 2016, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service withdrew marketing standards for the grass fed claim.
AMS continually reviews the services it provides and determined that these marketing claim standards did not fit within the agency’s statutory mandate. Without express authority from Congress – as with the National Organic Program – AMS does not have the authority to define labeling standards and determine if marketing claims are truthful and not misleading. Therefore, it is inappropriate for the agency to offer these as AMS-defined marketing claims.
So how do you know that you are choosing the best products?
First, if you are buying something with an ingredient list, turn the package over and actually read those ingredients. If there is a long list of ingredients, put it back on the shelf. The product likely contains artificial flavorings, colorings, or other additives and does not belong on a clean eating grocery list.
Make sure you know what the ingredients listed are. Natural flavorings - what does that mean? Each ingredient should be recognizable and should be an ingredient that you might purchase on its own. For example, if you decide you want a few granola bars to keep at work, choose those with nuts, dried fruit, and whole grains (if you want a grain-based bar). Oats, dried apples, raisins and walnuts would be the main ingredients in a healthier bar.
Understand that labels on the front of the package are designed to sell the product. The best way to know what you are getting is to read the ingredient list on the back.
Second, purchase products with the fewest added ingredients. Vegetables and fruits have no ingredient list because they are just what you see. But the prepackaged salads and refrigerated fruit cups might have added fats, sugar, and sodium. Dried beans, whole grains, and raw nuts are great pantry staples and can be flavored to your liking with the addition of herbs, spices, garlic or a variety of other methods of healthy seasoning.
Third, do a little research. You can get a lot of information if you take some time to do your research. Knowing the practices of the farmers, producers, and processors of your meat and eggs allows you to make the best and healthiest choices.
Don't be fooled by the health claims on the front of any packaged foods. Realize everything you see on the front of the package is just designed to sell the product. Take time to read the ingredient list, choose products with few and only health ingredients, and spend some time doing a little research so you can shop with confidence knowing you are making the best choice for your health and your budget.
For the Health of It!
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