Is your food really natural? How to interpret food labels

By: Dayna Copeland Schaef

When we were younger, there wasn’t a lot of information about the ingredients in the foods that we ate. Processed foods were a major part of our diets because they were quicker, easier and cheaper. Today, processed foods containing synthetic ingredients, obscene amounts of sodium and very little nutritional value, make up almost 90% of the average American’s diet. Despite this alarming truth, in the last ten years, there has been an increasing curiosity to the affects of such an unbalanced and irresponsible diet, leading more and more shoppers to read food labels and make more educated decisions about their daily intake, not only for their personal well being, but for the well being of their community and their planet.

With this rise in dietary accountability from the general public, many food manufacturers have caught on to the trend of all-natural, earth friendly and organic labeling in an effort to boost sales and compete with the more wholesome items on the shelf. Controversy ensues when customers dig deeper to reveal these questionable claims.

So what do these labels actually mean? Based on USDA regulations, a company can claim that their product is organic as long as it contains at least 95% organic ingredients. That means that the remaining 5% can be comprised of “other” products. If a consumer is intent on purchasing a product that is entirely comprised of organic components, the label must read: 100% Organic.

In regard to organic produce, regulations state that it must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides. The USDA even requires that a farm recycle its resources as well as “promote biodiversity,” in order to output produce that could be considered organic. Organic Meat and Poultry must come from livestock that has not been given any hormones or antibiotics and is even required to have access to the outdoors.

As far as labels that state that the product is “All-Natural,” or “Naturally Made,” the USDA does not actually regulate these claims, with the exception of meat and poultry. The USDA suggests, but does not ensure that foods that are labeled “All-Natural” are just less processed and are likely to contain less synthetics such as artificial sweeteners, dyes and other additives. In fact, some “All-Natural” products on the shelves today have very little natural ingredients at all. One diet shake sold by a company who boasts quite openly about their “quality, natural ingredients,” actually contained mostly synthetic components. There are no laws or regulations set up to protect the consumer from this misleading advertising, so it is important that the consumer investigate and be discerning when making their food choices.

GMO’s are another confusing and misleading aspect of this health food revolution. A GMO is translated to: a Genetically Modified Organism, which is most commonly found today in agriculture. The technique used to achieve a GMO is called recombinant DNA technology, in which scientists alter the DNA of a crop, such as corn, in order to make it more affordable to produce or more resistant to insects. While there are a great many benefits to the practice, many fear that foods produced using this technology are contributing to a number of growing problems, like: antibiotic resistant organisms, introduction of new allergens, and increased levels of pesticides introduced to the environment and ingested by consumers (which has it’s own, even grander list of consequences to consider, as well.) The U.S. Government requires no labeling indicating whether a product is a GMO; The European government does.

While the reality of the American diet is, at a glance, rather dismal and lacking, it is also true that as a result of the increasing amounts of information and literature written on the subject, more and more American’s are taking responsibility for the products they consume.
There are organizations popping up all across the country that are making it easier for consumers to make wise food decisions such as Agricultural Co-Ops, in which a community member can purchase one or more shares in a local farm, which then routinely doles out fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meat and poultry, all from on-site.

Purchasing food that was either produced or grown locally contributes to a cleaner, more pure product and since the source of all of this food is known, share holders in the co-op can be assured of the quality of the products, whether they be organic, all-natural, grass fed, free range, or what have you. Food that is mass produced by large, conglomerate food manufacturers and then shipped hundreds and thousands of miles away, is more likely to sacrifice healthful integrity in an attempt to be as cost effective as possible. It is also true that the less time a product sits on a shelf, the more nutrients it contains and by purchasing food locally, consumers can cut down significantly on the cost of fuel necessary to ship the products and the amount of environmental damage caused by the plains, trains and automobiles used to get it to their table.

So, while grocery stores seem to be laden with confusing and misleading labels, with the right amount of investigation and personal investment, Americans can reclaim their kitchen table, the quality of the foods they are eating and the environmental integrity of this great country.