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Take It In: To eat healthy, know which labels to trust

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

They won’t make the New York Times best-seller list; nevertheless, food labels are hot reading these days. That’s because consumers seek transparency from manufacturers, meaning they want to know what is and isn’t in the foods they eat, according to the 2018 Global Food & Drink Trends report by London-based market research firm, the Mintel Group Ltd.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Even back in 2015, a whopping 81 percent of weight-conscious consumers surveyed  said they read the fine print on food labels, while 72 percent of those surveyed who said they were not weight-conscious did so as well, based on the Weight Management & Healthy Living report published by the Hartman Group in Bellevue, Washington.

Knowing what you’re eating is definitely one of the best ways to adopt a healthier diet in the new year. Unfortunately, not all label terms are created equally. Some you can trust because they have a legal definition based on strict standards to back them up. Others aren’t trustworthy and are often nothing more than marketing fluff.

Here’s a sample of both types of label terms to help you make the best choices at the supermarket in the year ahead.

Labels to trust

“Organic.” There are four types of organic labels approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Three of these are certified under the standards of the USDA’s National Organic Program, meaning that the organic ingredients and the facilities that made these into foods are inspected and certified.

The first two of these terms are: “100 percent organic” and “95 percent organic.” Products in both designations can carry the USDA Organic seal. In the 95 percent organic label, the remaining 5 percent of ingredients cannot have been genetically engineered or modified.

The other two types of organic labels move further from the goal. These are “made with organic ingredients,” which signifies that 70 to 95 percent of the ingredients are organic, and “less than 70 percent organic ingredients,” where the only mention of which ingredients are organic is in the ingredient list.

“Gluten-free.” Gluten is a natural protein occurring primarily in wheat grains. The inability to digest gluten is the cause of celiac disease, an intestinal disorder that can cause far-reaching and life-limiting symptoms.

With the diagnosis of gluten intolerance on the rise, and wheat being an ingredient in a far-ranging list of foods, gluten-free labeling is a huge boon for those who need to avoid this substance.

Currently in the U.S., any food labeled “gluten-free” on a package must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This FDA “gluten-free” food-labeling rule does NOT apply to: meat, poultry and unshelled eggs (and any other products regulated by the USDA); distilled spirits and wines that contain 7 percent or more alcohol by volume; and malted beverages made with malted barley or hops.

Labels not to trust

“Natural.” There is no legal definition for this term. The word “natural” on a label doesn’t mean the product is necessarily better than a product without it. This includes everything from naturally flavored juices to “natural” candies, chips and cookies.

“Local.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines local as “characteristic of a particular place: not general or widespread.”

Beyond this, there is no legal definition of local as it applies to how far a food has traveled from field to fork.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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