Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Guest Post - The Good (and Bad) of Food Labels

While I am working away here at the office I have a guest post for you all.  James from "food on the table" has offered to write a bit about food labels and what they really mean.
(I was not sponsored by Food on the Table nor do I have any connection with them.  I just think it is an important topic and also a nifty website to help organize your food shopping.)

The Good (and Bad) of Food Labels 

Food labels are something that you deal with constantly in your life. More than likely, a lot of your meal planning depends directly on those labels and what they tell you about the food you’re buying. With something so important, it’s good to know exactly what you’re reading, so here are some of the most important food labels to know about.

One of the most common and useful food labels is “certified.” In the words of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, certified product is judged on “class, grade, or other quality characteristics.” That might not seem like the most useful definition, but don’t worry: certified meat is significantly better quality than meat that is not certified.

Another shining star of the food label world is “organic.” Organic food is “produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation” and is from farms and processing facilities that have been examined by a government-approved group to make sure that they hold up certain standards. And, if that wasn’t enough, organic labels will actually tell you what percentage of ingredients in a product are organic. Something that says “contains organic ingredients” has 70% or less organic ingredients, for example. The others are: “made with organic ingredients” for 70% or more, “organic” for 95% or more and “100% organic” for all organic ingredients.

One label that has become more popular recently is “fair trade.” Though it doesn’t directly address the quality of a product, the “fair trade” label says a lot. The company FLO-CERT makes sure that every product with the “fair trade” label benefits everyone involved in its lifecycle fairly. To make it simple, the large corporation that buys, say, coffee beans from small farmers in poor countries have to give the farmers a good deal under fair trade guidelines.

All of those labels seem pretty useful. However, you should always remember that food labels are also there to make a product look good. Take everything you see with a grain of salt. As an example, when you see the label “natural,” you shouldn’t just immediately lump it into the same category as everything you saw that was labeled “organic.” In the words of the FDA, natural food is “food [that] does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” The reason why you should be cautious with this label is that that definition leaves a lot of leeway for food manufacturers. Rather than looking for a “natural” label, you’re far better off to just look at the ingredients list to figure things out for yourself.

An even worse label is “local.” If things were as they should be, a “local” label would mean that a product was grown within 100 miles of where it is being sold. The problem is that there is no regulatory group that checks this claim, so that “local” food is not necessarily from right down the corner. If you want local food, you’re better off in a place that is probably without such labels: the farmer’s market.

Food labels, while incredibly useful, are also things that should be approached with caution. Do your own research and trust your own intuitions so that you aren’t fooled by any flimsy claims of “all natural ingredients” the next time you walk into the store.

James Kim is a writer for foodonthetable.com.  Food on the Table is a company that provides online budget meal planning services.  Their goal is to help families eat better and save money.