Educated Grocery Shopping: What Do All the Labels Mean?!
Last week I had the incredible opportunity to speak at a women’s health and wellness evening. The two topics I got to speak about were both educated grocery shopping and packing our kid’s lunches. Everything was lovely, the people, the speakers, and the setting. There was only one downside to the event- and that was I had to speak about some of my favorite topics for only 20 minutes!! I could spend hours…maybe even days…talking about these subjects. Thank G-d I had a timetable to stick to or the women might've had to stay out quite late!
For those who did not get to attend, and for those who would like an additional information I am going to do a bit of a recap of what being an educated grocery shopper and figuring out labels actually looks like. We are going to go through some of the sections of grocery store each week and discuss some key labels that come up. After that we will circle back and revisit the topic of packing lunches with some-edge-of-your-seat examples of conventional and not-so-conventional lunches and pictures.
One of my biggest influences in the Nutrition World is Dr. Marion Nestle from NYU. She has studied extensively the meeting point of the consumer with the industry and has lobbied for clearer labels, and less convoluting! Its like I always say...its not only less polluting that we need to do, BUT also less convoluting.
You are about to be the most educated shopper in the store! Let’s begin with food claims. Did you know that
Scientists have found that on a milky way chocolate bar through studying the swirls extensively that the swirls actually resemble the milky way?! I was shocked too. But this is just one example of how ludicrous the food industry can be!
Let’s focus on some actual food claims
Food claims have varying definitions. Let’s first describe what a food claim is:
Particular claim about the food and how it is beneficial towards health (currently only 12 that are approved by the USDA, and must undergo scientific testing and provide evidence) for example: calcium + vitamin D and osteoporosis
Claim in reference to the nutrients (think low sugar, fat, sodium, or cholesterol)
Structure + Function claim (how a nutrient is beneficial towards a function) - think fiber keeping your gut regular or vitamin A benefitting your eyes
These three categories are how a food claim can be classified. And is important foundational information for considering any and all food claims on packaging and advertising. Let’s take this one step further- the FDA (food and drug administration) and USDA (united states department of agriculture) are two governing bodies that help to keep decorum in the food industry. I will give the analogy of how a teacher in the classroom should be following school policies, however with some areas the teacher will take their own liberty to determine what the rule should be. That is exactly how the food industry works. There are some laws and regulations that are clear as day and others that are murky and allow companies to have...shall we call it- creative independence when advertising certain claims on their items.
As of now the only thing lawfully prohibited are terms that are deceptive in nature. But there currently does not exist a list of accepted and unaccepted food claims. An example of a deceptive term might be…”gives more vitamins to help you glow in the dark” - while acceptable but creative could be “this is the best food to beat midnight munchies!”
Some other common confusing advertising techniques that are used:
Puffing- terms that really don’t mean anything! But give exaggeration like “Best pizza of the east coast” OR “Europe’s greatest coffee”
Incomplete comparison- is when a product is described as “the best” when the comparison product is not listed or referenced. For example: “these band-aids are better than the leading brand.” As you see here the comparison has been made but the competition has not been listed.
Now that you have some background we are going to dive into what some of the most common food claims are throughout a grocery store.
Although we would like to think that grocery stores always have our health in mind- they are also a business and want to draw us in to buy as much as possible. My biggest frustrations at the food industry as a whole is how it has become a goal to confuse the consumer (me and you). Because, if what food labels were actually trying to communicate was crystal clear...we probably wouldn’t buy more than a ¼ of things available in the store!
Let’s venture over to the produce isle - the label in question here will be “organic.”
Organic - Is one of the few symbols that the USDA oversees. If an item is organic it means that animals were not given growth hormones, conventional pesticides weren’t used, an fertilizers made with synthetics were avoided as well as no bioengineering OR radiation. I know that was a mouthful. The deal is that just because something is labeled organic DOES not mean it is less processed or MORE healthy. What it means is that it has fulfilled the qualifications (listed above) set forth by the USDA. And that 95% of ingredients are organic.
I’m sure a lot of people have the burning question of organic vs. inorganic. But here’s the truth. The most important thing is that you are eating fruits and vegetable regardless of organic or not! As Dr. Marion Nestle mentions, food miles are next on the list. Food miles are how far a food travels to get to its destination of sale. The farther the food travels the less fresh the food is. As a result, local foods are something I support heavily, and what most people don’t realize is that they often use less pesticides than organic (and inorganic) because their farm is smaller so it is much easier to control than a commercial farm.
While we let all this information sink in we can prepare for the next isle in the grocery store - “Dairy, Eggs, & Cheese.”
In the meantime, have a Shabbat Shalom and enjoy your fruits and veggies!