Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN, CDN
Reviewed by QualityHealth’s Medical Advisory Board
Are you tempted to buy foods with wholesome-sounding labels like “superfood,” “all natural,” or “energy-boosting”? Be careful: While these nutritional buzzwords sound good, the products themselves may not be all that healthy.
That’s because many of these terms have no specific legal definition, and can be used arbitrarily. “When you consider a product that uses any of these terms on its label, you might want to investigate further,” says Laurie Deutsch-Mozian, MS, RDN, CDN, Community Health Coordinator for the HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley. “You may not be getting what you think you’re getting.” Furthermore, even some well-defined terms may be used in ways that can be misleading. Here are a few popular nutritional labels that don’t necessarily deliver on their promises:
- Natural or All Natural. It’s generally understood that foods labeled “natural” don’t contain added colors, artificial flavors, or other synthetic substances, but the term is not defined or regulated, so the designation often doesn’t mean much. And many “natural” or “all natural” foods aren’t particularly wholesome—many are high in fat, salt, sugar, or other (all natural) ingredients you may want to limit. Check the nutrition label and ingredients.
- Ancient Grains. While this term has no meaning for legal purposes, the Whole Grains Council, which markets grain products, defines ancient grains as those that have not been modified or changed in any way over the past several hundred years. Some commonly available ancient grains include spelt, farro/emmer, freekeh (green wheat), quinoa, amaranth, millet, and Kamut™ Khorasan wheat.
- Energy-Boosting. Technically, energy comes from calories, so anything you eat that has calories will give you energy. But when used to market food or dietary supplements, “energy-boosting” often means that the product contains caffeine, ginseng (a plant; the root is used in cooking), guarana (a caffeine-containing plant from Brazil), vitamin B12, coenzyme Q10 (a naturally occurring antioxidant that’s often sold as a supplement), or other substances that may—or may not—help your body produce energy.
- Cage-Free/Free Range/Free Roaming/Grass-Fed/Humane/Pasture-Raised. These labels are used to describe the living conditions (or diets) of animals or animal products (like milk or eggs) that are used for food. Most of these terms aren’t regulated, so while it’s implied that the animals are free to roam outdoors at least part of each day, this is not always the case. However, “free range” and “free roaming” do have a meaning: Producers must show that animals have access to the outdoors, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
- Heirloom Foods. The majority of fruits and vegetables in our food system are commercially grown from hybrid seeds bred by humans for specific traits (like large size or bright color) that make them more marketable. Heirloom, or heritage, vegetables are grown from open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seeds handed down unchanged through many generations of families or seed companies.
- Superfood. Superfood is used to describe any food or food-based dietary supplement that’s packed with health-promoting nutrients or contains a significant amount of a powerful or essential nutrient that may be hard to get from a normal diet. At the same time, a superfood presumably does not contain anything that might be harmful to your health. Deeply colored green leafy vegetables like kale and watercress; blueberries; seaweeds; green tea; chia seeds, and turmeric (a plant; the root is used in cooking) are all considered superfoods.
- Whole Grain. There is no legal definition of “whole grain,” but when it comes to product labeling, the generally accepted meaning is a food that contains the entire grain seed, or kernel. That includes the germ (the part of the seed that grows into a plant), the endosperm (the tissue that surrounds the germ), and the bran (the seed’s outer layer), depending on the type of grain. The term whole grain may be used even if the seed has been cracked, crushed, or broken down in some way, as long as all the components are retained in the final product.
In addition, a few labels do have specific, legal meanings. Here are a few of them:
- No Added Sugars. The phrase, as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, means that no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient has been added during processing. The word sugar refers to any type of caloric sweetener, including cane sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, fructose, molasses, and malt syrup. Note that, naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fresh fruit and dairy products, are not considered added sugars. A product that contains virtually no sugar at all (less than 0.5 g per serving) may be labelled “Sugar-Free.” But be sure to check the ingredients label on foods that claim to contain “No Added Sugar” or are “Sugar-Free.” They may still be high in fat, salt, or calories.
- Organic. Any food that is labeled organic must be produced, handled, and labeled in accordance with USDA standards and regulations for organic ingredients. For example, most synthetic fertilizers or pesticides can’t be used; for organic meat, the animals must eat a 100% organic diet, and not be given antibiotics or hormones. Manufacturers must also identify each organic ingredient used in a multi-ingredient product. (When a product label indicates the food is made with specific organic ingredients, non-organic ingredients may also be used.) Organic products can be labeled “100% organic,” “organic,” (if the product is made up of 95% or more organic ingredients) or “made with organic ingredients” (if at least 70% of the ingredients are organic).
- Certified Humane. Farm animals raised according to standards established by the nonprofit organization Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) can be labeled Certified Humane. This means that the animals are raised in a responsible fashion, with adequate space, shelter, and water, and a quality diet with no added hormones or antibiotics. HFAC certification also ensures that animals have been handled in a gentle, humane manner to limit the amount of stress they endure throughout their lives. Very specific rules have been established for individual types of farm animals.
Laurie Deutsch-Mozian, MS, RDN, CDN reviewed this article.
Deutsch-Mozian, Laurie, MS, RD HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley. Email to author November 27, 2015.
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“Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (9. Appendix A: Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims).” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Updated August 20, 2015.
“Certified Humane: Overview.” Humane Farm Animal Care. Page accessed January 11, 2016.
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“What Is Organic?” United States Department of Agriculture. September 2011.
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