Understanding Food Labels

By: Co+op, welcome to the table

Choosing new foods and flavors for your family can be fun. But when faced with a shelf full of look-alike cans and packages, do you know how to identify the foods that best fit into your balanced diet? If not, learning your way around a Nutrition Facts label can help. Here’s what to look for:

  • Servings per package and serving size, which is important info for comparison shopping (and might keep us from eating that entire pint of ice cream in one sitting)
  • Calorie count per serving and the number of those calories that come from fat (all the figures on the label are based on a 2,000-calorie adult diet)
  • The “bad boys,” handily grouped together: saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium (the lower the numbers for these, the better)
  • Total carbs and sugar counts, given in grams and percentages of your daily value to help you stay in a healthy range
  • Nutrient listings for vitamins and minerals (vitamin A, calcium, vitamin C, protein, and iron) and dietary fiber—daily values are given, but in general, higher is better here. If a product has 5% or less of these items, it’s considered low, and 20% or more is high.

It’s also a good idea to scan the label for artificial ingredients and sneaky sweeteners (like high-fructose corn syrup), as well as food allergens (depending on who’s coming to dinner). The USDA requires that the eight most common allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat) be clearly listed.

Additional labels to seek out include the USDA Organic Seal, the Fair Trade Certified label, the Certified Humane label, Country of Origin Labels (COOL), and of course, any labels added by the co-op to highlight local products.

When it comes to food, organic is a delicious way to eat well and support the environment. The key principle behind organic food is healthy soil. By acting as responsible stewards of their land, organic farmers create a cycle of healthy soil, growing healthy food for healthier people. And it’s clear from the tremendous growth of organic food—$1 billion in sales in 1990 to $43 billion in sales in 2016—that more and more people appreciate its value. Organic foods meet all government safety standards that other foods must meet, plus the specific requirements outlined for organic certification. While foods that are grown organically may sometimes cost more, they also offer the kind of value you won’t find in conventionally grown foods.

Why eat organic foods?

They’re healthier
Organic foods are grown without the use of GMO seeds, synthetic pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers.

They’re environmentally sound
Many conventional farming practices cost taxpayers billions of dollars in environmental damage and federal subsidies, while organic growers protect soil sustainability and water quality and contribute to biodiversity.

They’re better for farmers
Organic farming protects the health and welfare of farmworkers by limiting exposure to harmful synthetic pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers. And organic farming, particularly when sustainable practices are used, better preserves and fortifies the land for farmers of future generations.

They’re more humane
Animals on organic farms are typically treated more humanely.
So how do you tell if the products you’re buying are organic? If a food is labeled as “made with organic ingredients,” it contains at least 70 percent organic content, while the label “organic” means that 95% or more of the ingredients are organic. In general, looking for the “USDA Organic” label is the best way to guarantee that the product has been grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, antibiotics, or growth hormones. Organic growers avoid contamination during food processing, keep detailed records of their operations, and are likely to use sustainable growing methods.

Additional Definitions:

Fair Trade
A market-based approach to reducing poverty and empowering farmers around the world by encouraging fair wages and labor conditions and promoting environmental sustainability. Fairtrade is the world’s largest and most recognized fair trade system, consisting of Fairtrade International and Fairtrade America. Products labeled as fair trade must be certified by a third-party organization to international standards.

Natural/All natural
This term is defined by the USDA only for meat products, which should be only minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or added colors. As defined, the term is broad enough to cover most meats. The label may be added to products at the meat manufacturer’s discretion—the USDA does not investigate every claim. On produce and packaged food labels, “natural” is a marketing term, suggesting that the product was created without the use of artificial ingredients. Because the term is not regulated or verified by a third-party certifier for non-meat products, however, shoppers should be wary of the claim.

The term organic is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and refers to crops and animals raised in accordance with organic standards, which include the avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs (pesticides, fertilizers), avoidance of GMO seeds, avoidance of growth hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, and sewage sludge. Organic certification happens through a third-party certifying agent and must be renewed annually through a successful inspection.

The term sustainable describes a restorative system that does not systematically degrade resources. The most commonly used definition says that sustainable systems meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Another definition we love is simply, “Enough, for all, forever.”

Non-GMO Verified
The Non-GMO Project Verified mark assures consumers that the product bearing the label has been evaluated for compliance with the Non-GMO Standard, which can be found here. The URL is also included as part of the verification mark so consumers can easily access more information about what the Non-GMO Project Standard encompasses. The verification mark does not state that a product is “GMO-Free,” and it does not state that the product is safer, better, or healthier. It simply states the product is compliant with the Non-GMO Project Standard