Deciphering Food Labels - What's Really Good For You Part 1
The other day I bought a bag of potato chips. I know, not the best snack choice but the bag had multiple labels on the front indicating that they were probably a healthy choice. The label included, made with olive oil, vegan, non-GMO, gluten free, only 140 calories per serving. Wow – with those kinds of credentials they must be good for you – or not. I decided to take a closer look at food labels and what they really mean. What I discovered is that making healthy food purchases can be complicated, so much so, that this will be a two-part series or you may suffer from information overload.
Certified Organic vs Organic
The "USDA Organic" or "Certified Organic" seal comes from the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and the specific requirements for this labeling are different for different kinds of foods but the general requirements are:
- 1. Organic farms make efforts to keep their soil healthy and promote crop diversity. Pesticides are not allowed in organic farming and this is the most common reason for most people to buy organic foods over conventional foods.
- 2. Any food item must have an ingredients list and the contents should be 95% or more organic. This means free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes and cannot be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering (GMO).
Basically, this means conventional food can have pesticides, industrial solvents (what the heck are they for), irradiation (in this process foods are exposed to ionizing radiation to preserve them or to eliminate sprouting or ripening), be a GMO and contain other potentially harmful chemicals.
Organic foods are still grown per organic guidelines but without the USDA certified label. It's costly to obtain and renew the USDA certification. There are application fees, annual inspection fees and annual certification fees, which can amount to thousands of dollars per year.This is not affordable for many local and independent organic farmers.I'm fortunate enough to live in an agricultural area and get my produce from local farmers or local farmer's markets so I have access to great organic foods all year round.
You may not have the option to buy organic fruits and vegetables all the time or not, have a large selection of organic produce in your local market. So, whenever possible try to buy organic. Below are the top 10 fruits and vegetables that are heavily sprayed with pesticides and should be avoided.
8. Bell Peppers
GMO Foods (Genetically Modified Organism)
Genetically modified foods are foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally. The modification is done through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.
What disturbs me most about GMO foods is the term "does not occur naturally" and the whole DNA modification concept. I'm not a biochemist but I do remember from science class that DNA is complex and unlike Dr. Frankenstein, I'm uncomfortable creating new "species".
Some concerns connected with GMO foods:
Health Concerns - According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, since the introduction of GMO food in 1996, food allergies, digestive problems and a substantial increase in the number of adults with 3 or more chronic illnesses have increased.
Pesticide Exposure - A majority of GMO crops are engineered to contain a gene for pesticide resistance, which means they have pesticides built into them.
Do humans have a gene for pesticide resistance? I don't think so because I've seen farms being sprayed and the workers are wearing hazmat suits. It was not the pastoral scene I expected.Do we need additional exposure to pesticides?
Unpredictability and the Unknown - Do we really understand all the potential complex interactions and effects GMO foods can have and can we predict the long-term effects of exposure and consumption?
I think caution is called for. There was a time when lead was considered really great. We found lots of cool things we could do with lead.We put it in gasoline for better performance, used it in toys, dishes and paint. It was useful and affordable. Over time, the toxic levels of lead increased. Drinking water was contaminated, auto-workers were dying and becoming sick and children began exhibiting symptoms of lead poisoning. We didn't really know about the long-term outcomes then, and I question whether we know what we are doing now.
The jury is still out as to the potential health risks associated with GMO's or the long-term and accumulative effects. I personally choose Non-GMO whenever possible – I trust nature more than petri dishes.
Okay – We've made it through the food labeling biggies and in part 2 we'll tackle some potentially misleading food labels such as "Natural" and a surprising food label that literally says what it is! (that was an exciting find). My hope is that when all the mystery of food labels are revealed, you will be able to walk confidently in to any grocery store and know what you're buying.